Caitlyn Jenner and the “Freak Show” of Transgender Representation

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

The premiere of Caitlyn Jenner’s new docu-series, I Am Cait, on E! Entertainment Television occasions an important conversation about the ways trans people are represented in popular culture.

As I see it, there are two dominant narratives used to represent trans people within the popular imagination: the transition narrative and the freak narrative. These narratives are distinct, yet frequently overlap within media representations. The transition narrative documents medical and social transition to implicitly suggest that the only interesting stories about trans people are those centered upon transition, or the process by which one’s gender expression (one’s outward presentation of gender) is brought into alignment with their gender identity (one’s internal conception of self). The freak narrative presents trans people as “deviant” and titillating spectacles for the amusement of a largely cisgender (or, non-transgender) viewership. This narrative also encourages cisgender consumers of popular culture to confirm their normalcy against the identity of the supposed “exotic” trans person. I would go so far as to argue that all mainstream modes of representing trans people draw from conventions established within the historical freak show, in which exhibitions of gender non-conforming persons were a staple.

Enter Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner is, arguably, the most visible trans person within popular culture at this moment. Does Jenner’s reemergence as her ideal self, in particular her Vanity Fair cover and reality television series, represent a contemporary version of the freak show? Or, might her carefully constructed representations actually revise and subvert depictions of trans women, in particular, as “freakish”?

Jenner’s hyper-feminized Vanity Fair cover brings to mind media representations of Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman who became the first internationally known recipient of gender confirmation surgery (what at the time would have been referred to as “sex reassignment surgery”). In 1952, Jorgensen’s transition became a front-page story in the New York Daily News under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell.” Because Jorgensen had served in the military during World War II, the media capitalized on her seemingly disparate transition from the hyper-masculine role of “GI” to the hyper-feminized persona of “bombshell.” Jorgensen used the celebrity acquired from the spectacle of her transition to become an activist and advocate for trans people. Like Jorgensen, Jenner’s story has generated interest due to her status as a former Olympic athlete. Jenner is also using her celebrity and the spectacle of her reemergence as a platform to advocate for the acceptance of transgender youth. The first episode of I Am Cait opens with Jenner discussing her responsibility to the trans community, in particular, her desire to use her privilege and visibility to help trans youth in crisis. In positioning herself as both a celebrity and an activist, she subverts the freak narrative by using media exposure for social justice aims.

Of course, there are those who have erroneously suggested Jenner’s reemergence was orchestrated for fame, narcissistic self-promotion, and attention. To position transition as a mere publicity stunt is both inaccurate and potentially harmful to transgender communities. Such arguments about Jenner falsely position transgender identity as an issue of becoming as opposed to an issue of being. In other words, these arguments posit gender identity as something one is moving towards as opposed to an identity one inherently occupies. When trans people transition, they are outwardly expressing who they are, not “passing” as an inauthentic version of a gender they are not. Caitlyn, in a sense, has always been Caitlyn (she said as much in her interview with Diane Sawyer). When transgender identities are seen as a question of becoming as opposed to a question of being, trans people are positioned as illegitimate and undeserving of the respect and recognition afforded to their cisgender counterparts. Though Jenner may have played into the idea of “trans identity as becoming” through her “coming out” interview with Sawyer followed by her reemergence as Caitlyn, in doing so, she also cleverly side-stepped the transition narrative and the invasive spectacle it often becomes.

It is particularly disappointing when the above criticisms have come from gay cisgender men and women. This is perhaps unsurprising, as there is a long history of transphobia in queer communities and movements, in which trans people have been regarded as too “other” to partake in queer people’s struggles for equality. But let us not forget that black and Latina trans women started the Stonewall Inn Riots, the historical event most often cited as the beginning of Gay Liberation in the United States. Even this narrative of marginalized struggle has fallen victim to the white supremacist patriarchy, with white cisgender gay men recast as the story’s heroes.

Given the true history of Gay Liberation in this country, it is even more shocking that, at present, there is an epidemic of violence against trans women of color and the suicide rate for trans people is nine times higher than the national average. These, to me, are issues that should be on par with discussions of “marriage equality.” If “love prevails,” then why aren’t (white) queer cis people more concerned about standing in solidarity with trans people, in particular, trans people of color? While the victories of some are celebrated, the lives of others continue to fall just outside the circle of visibility. The bottom line is that trans people continue to be represented as “freakish” by both popular media and queer communities and movements. This fact makes Caitlyn Jenner’s presence at this historical moment all the more significant. The visibility of her life provides us with an important blueprint for using privilege in the service of justice, and demonstrates that the possession of privilege does not automatically equal acceptance.

In writing this article, I have been extremely cognizant of my own position as someone who may be considered an “expert” on gender issues because I can add the letters “Ph.D.” after my name. When I write or teach, I actively attempt to not turn anyone into a spectacle, especially if they occupy an identity position I do not. In the case of trans people, this means that I listen to the trans people in my life, in particular, my trans students, who have probably taught me more about this particular topic then I have taught them. In fact, I actively reject the role of “expert,” as there are so many identities that I do not inhabit. While I may have some understanding of them intellectually, this knowledge does not always come from lived experience.

What I do know is this: when we make efforts to understand and respect trans people, we actively work against the popular tendency to enfreak and dehumanize them. We should respect other people’s identities, even when those identities do not coincide with our particular versions of reality. Treat trans people with dignity and respect. Listen to their stories. Use their names and pronouns. Say their names. Just say them. Say them.


One comment

  1. Very interesting article. You touched upon important subject of transphobia within gay community. Very present while pushed aside.

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