If Caitlyn Jenner’s public arrival on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair reminded us of anything, it is that the lens of Annie Leibovitz remains one of portrait photography’s most shockingly agreeable. Leibovitz has long had the knack of constructing an identity that pleases its subject owner and audience in equal measure while also appearing to shock. In her famous pictures of a pregnant and post-partum naked Demi Moore or of a regally lonesome Queen Elizabeth, Leibovitz pulls off more artfully than most the best-loved trick of our era. She offers us the illusion of a brave reality, one that we are also permitted to live in our approval of her work. To admire the Moore cover was not just to admire a lovely picture but to affirm the maternal body. If you didn’t like this picture, you were a conservative prude. Possibly a misogynist.
This is the great charm, and the great duplicity, of the magazine. It is progressivism of a pretty but ultimately vacant sort. In word and in pictorial deed, Vanity Fair gives its audience licence to feel good about other people’s problems. For three decades now, this retooled glossy has brought immaculately written and illustrated stories of liberal courage to help its AB audience sleep well on Frette linens. If we can admire beautiful portraits of transgender women, pregnant women or royal women, then we are good. The halo of everyday courage, visible in the Jenner portraits, embraces us, too, and anyone who is not as powerfully moved by these essays as we are is a conservative prude. Possibly a transphobe.
Leibovitz helped build this brand as powerfully as VF’s chief renovator, Tina Brown, and she remains a master communicator. There are few so skilled at offering us a glimpse of what we presume to be truth. Of course, Leibovitz offers no more truth than Richard Avedon, Photoshop or Instagram. She simply offers the version of the truth for which a readership hungers which is, in this case, that the act of transitioning from one socially prescribed gender to another is courageous.
Of course, this act really is courageous, even as it might be, as is reportedly the case for many transpeople, an ineluctable one. To ascribe gender to oneself is a great offence to both those who prefer a “nature” account of social organisation and to those who prefer “nurture”. The US Christian Right has not held back in its critique of Jenner as promoting “unnatural” ideas of womanhood.
Some liberal feminists have been pretty frank in their critique of Jenner as promoting a “natural” idea of womanhood. Recalling the infamously troubled arguments of local academic Sheila Jeffreys, journalist Elinor Burkett wrote in the New York Times this past weekend that Jenner’s understanding that a woman is made by bodily parts and not by society — itself an inaccurate claim and one a little undermined by Burkett’s own reference to her periods — is anti-feminist.
Oh, FFS. Even if we can agree that gender is something that exists as a social construct and that our sexed bodies function only as a biological alibi for this construct, this doesn’t mean that living outside the construct is easy. Or recommended. Or even endurable. For feminists, or for anyone, to demand that transpeople act as idealised, post-gender revolutionaries who grow beards, wear frocks and refuse surgery is ridiculous.
These are persons who must live in the realm of the real and not in a quasi-academic argument for social constructivism and so if they happen to, as I happen to, find life a bit more bearable by the occasional use of Spanx, then, fine. Gender may be constructed. This doesn’t mean it’s a choice for me, or for anyone, to make. That’s the thing about constructs: they produce at least as much unescapable meaning as bodies do.
And the thing about the Leibovitz portraits is that they produce no new meaning while appearing to be very new. This is not a critique of Jenner who, like all transwomen (and all women), is damned, in the view of some, if she does look like a hot woman and damned if she doesn’t. Rather, it is to problematise the thing that Vanity Fair, the mother of all soft-liberal media, perpetually promises us. And that is that This One Story Will Change Your Life.
I have no doubt that there will be some transgender people who will see these shots and their concomitant “meaning” as personally meaningful. Then again, I have no doubt that there will be genderqueer, or sissy or butch, people who will find them terribly depressing. Even as Jenner’s “story” is apparently impressive and will certainly provide inspiration to some, there are others who will find the characterisation of gender as a journey between two static points toward a single gendered truth personally harmful. But, that’s no reason for VF not to cover the story it was made to publish because, in the end, such stories are held to make much more of a difference, positive or negative, than they actually do.
Jenner believes she is making a difference and, probably, Leibovitz does too. Her consistent project of depicting things that seem dangerous and not, as they always are, completely camera-ready is likely fuelled by a belief in the candour of liberalism. This does not make them real and this does not give them much of a function beyond their primary one which is to allow an awful lot of cisgender people in the media class to write tedious articles on the topic of their own tolerance. Who, frankly, are overjoyed by semi-literate Right-wing challenges which only serve to underscore this enlightenment.
You “tolerate” or even “celebrate” Jenner’s decision to actively ascribe herself a gender rather than simply have it, as most of us do, ascribed. And you believe that the fact of your embrace will Make a Difference.
But, what we are also celebrating here is a belief that is just as false as the belief in gender and that is that inspiration trickles down. Just because Jenner believes that a flawless presentation of self-ascribed femininity and hope will Make a Difference, doesn’t mean that we have to as well. We can reject that liberal dream and not be, at all, transphobic.
It is possible, thanks to Jenner, that a few people might think twice before laying into a transgender person, and, really, transgender people remain among the western world’s most culturally and socially marginalised. It is possible that a few people might find the courage necessary to enact the transition that will make their lives more palatable. But, this Leibovitz-endorsed emphasis on What You Can Do to Help is so pleasingly apolitical.
If Jenner has failed the trans-community, it is not because she elected to dress in vintage corsetry or because she underwent an expensive physical transformation few could afford. It is because she believes, as so many of us do, that the remediation of personal attitudes — and I remain unconvinced that liberal media even meets this promise — is what is most urgently needed.
Surely, in Jenner’s life, the approval of her friends, family and fans currently stands as her most urgent need. In the lives of most transpeople, though, these informal acceptances surely take second place to the formal ones sorely needed. Jenner, a Republican and Christian of means, has enjoyed the sort of extraordinary circumstances that purchase her freedom from the medical, juridical and economic realities that do much worse to transpeople than call them names on the internet.
It is nice, I suppose, that VF and Leibovitz continue to illustrate tolerance, on this occasion in the person of a free-market champion opposed to Obama’s mild reform to healthcare that might see some transpeople access the assistance they often need. But it is not materially meaningful. These pictures tell us what Leibovitz’s popular pictures always tells us and that is: we are good people.
What transpeople need, perhaps, is not good people so much as they need better institutions who do not codify them out of existence. It’s important to be nice, of course. But it’s urgent to seek change that exceeds our confidence in our own, easily purchased tolerance.