Brynn Tannehill

The Pitfalls of Transgender Celebrity

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | March 04, 2015 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: anti-trans stereotypes, Bruce Jenner, media coverage, salacious, stereotypes, stigma, tokenism, transgender celebrities, transitioning, transphobia

bruce-jenner-afp.jpgIncreasingly over the past few years there have been rumors that Bruce Jenner is a transgender woman. Generally, I avoid speculating on someone else's gender identity. It is their identity, they get to define it, and speculating seems both rude and pretentious.

However, it is worth examining how the convergence of celebrity and coming out interact. If handled well, it could end up being a teachable moment in which the public learns more about transgender identities, struggles, medicine, and lived realities.

I don't expect this outcome for an instant.

When people transition in the public eye it usually goes badly. Being a celebrity is one thing; being a spokesperson for the transgender community is entirely different. When someone steps into a role where people hang more on their every word than on those of the foremost experts in transgender policy and medicine, the results are cringe-worthy

After news helicopter pilot Zoe Tur came out as transgender, she made erroneous statements that hormones changed her voice (they don't), made her start "thinking like a woman" (no, gender differentiation happens in utero), and that women are worse pilots than men because they aren't decisive enough.

Chaz-Bono-at-Center.jpgEven the higher-profile Chaz Bono made public statements early in his transition that were highly problematic, medically wrong, and bordering on misogynistic:

"I never really understood women before, to be honest, but I had a tolerance for women that I don't have now. No, really. There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I've stopped talking as much. I've noticed that Jen can talk endlessly. I just kind of zone out. You just don't care!"

Even highly trained, eloquent, and educated media professionals like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock can see their interviews go horribly awry. Both of them had interviews that went straight to "tell me about your genitals and their history." In Laverne's case, with Katie Couric, the gaffe resulted in a teaching moment. With Mock, the situation on Piers Morgan's show only got uglier in the aftermath.

While Jenner may be familiar with reality TV shows, Americans should know by now that there's nothing real about them, including Jenner's own.

Transgender documentaries have an unfortunate tendency to resemble "reality" television: they are notorious within the community for being clich├ęd, repetitive, and telling the story people want to hear rather than focusing on the authentic stories that transgender people really want to tell. This has led to innumerable versions of the "Transgender Documentary Drinking Game," which involve taking a drink every time the documentary does something trite and predictable for a straight audience.

Celebrities are already subjected to prurient objectification about every aspect of their private lives and sexuality. Combine this unremitting scrutiny with a dehumanizing attitude toward transgender people and we are set up for a perfectly awful storm of coverage.

jerry-springer-transgender-stigma.jpgMedia is more interested in capitalizing on the stigma of being transgender than in genuine transgender lives and issues, as shown by the voyeurism of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich's use of transgender people as tawdry props. The coverage of Jenner is simply a continuation of this.

So what do I expect from this media coverage? I expect offensive attention on genitals and surgery. I expect Fox News to bring in religiously-motivated "experts" to denounce Jenner's identity and decisions.

I expect interviews full of inaccuracies and cringe-worthy quotes. I expect reality TV that in no way represents the reality of being transgender and instead focuses on the trappings of gender performance.

I would be shocked if the public learns the things they actually need to know about being transgender -- about how most of us have very few legal protections against discrimination, and how we are losing what few we have in Middle America. I would be shocked if people learned how hard it is to get medical coverage. They won't see the myriad of ways, both overt and subtle, in which transgender people are "othered," or the soul-crushing isolation of being queer outside of metropolitan areas.

People won't see the how hard it is to get identification like driver's licenses or birth certificates, or the consequences of not having identification that matches our presentation.

Most of all, readers and audiences won't see the appalling levels of violence that transgender women of color face every day.

In the end, when people ask me what I think of the Bruce Jenner situation and what my thoughts on the media coverage are, I keep coming back to what Indiana Jones said in the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark: "Don't look. Shut your eyes, and don't look, no matter what happens!"

Because almost nothing good comes from looking.


Originally posted at Outlook Columbus; reposted here with permission.
Bruce Jenner photograph via AFP.

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