Is the Media Capable of Covering Bruce Jenner’s Transition With Respect?
As a culture, we’re conditioned to treat reality TV stars without any respect. After all, why should we, when they don’t even seem to themselves? They’ve exploited their personal lives for fame, degraded themselves for notoriety, and behaved in such an unnatural way that a disgusting word had to be invented to describe it: “famewhoring.”
Such is the conundrum with Bruce Jenner.
As was reported by both TMZ and People over the weekend, Bruce Jenner is “transitioning into a woman.” The details of what exactly that means are still unclear, and should remain unclear until Jenner, who will apparently film a docuseries about his transition, speaks about it. If he speaks about it.
And yet the flurry of attention this story got on a weekend already flush with national news—ever heard of the Super Bowl?—speaks to what a gigantic moment this has the potential to be for the trans movement.
Eloquent and brave trans women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, remarkable for their extraordinary ordinariness, are already leading the strides in what TIME (with Cox on the cover) called “America’s next civil rights frontier.” Now the frontier is poised to gain hereto unimaginable visibility and attention with a man who is not only a former Olympian, but the patriarch of America’s Royal Reality TV Family, becoming a part of it.
That’s really a blessing and a curse.
The trans movement has a face that could take it more mainstream than ever—and it is the face of a Kardashian. Not only that, it is a face that we have cruelly belittled and joked about for over a decade now. A movement that has already struggled to be covered with nuance and care in the more legit corners of the mediasphere is now heading to the tabloids.
Bruce Jenner is in the midst of what is probably the most human moment of his life. I fear that we’re going to treat him as part of an exhibit at a zoo.
In January, GLAAD released a statement about the speculation over Jenner’s gender, saying, “Speculation about a person’s gender identity only inflames the invasive and gross scrutiny that transgender people face every day at school, at work, or even when just walking down the street. It’s long past time that media outlets stop gossiping about Bruce Jenner’s gender.”
This is very true. But no one is going to listen. And thanks to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, many media outlets will feel indignant that they’re even being asked to stop speculating and stop scrutinizing. This is a family that has, until now, begged for scrutiny.
And that’s how we’ve arrived at interesting crossroads. The media will undoubtedly report heavily on Jenner’s journey. There’s no preventing that. But will they at least report it on it respectfully?
There already seems to be a marked—and, honestly, jarringly sudden—shift in tone in the way that the media, specifically the tabloid rags that once profiteered in mocking his nipped, tucked, feminine appearance, is writing about Jenner.
For years, his slow transition into living his life as a woman made him a media punching bag.
There was Star’s cover in 2013 purporting that Bruce “has more dresses than Kim in his Malibu home,” and that Kris Jenner was going to “expose his darkest secret.”
Just shy of a year ago when reports that Jenner had shaved down his Adam’s apple—first fueling rumors of a gender change—Perez Hilton referred to it as a “TRANSformation.”
Radar Online published a slideshow in October titled “Long Locks, Luscious Lips & Shaved Legs: Bruce Jenner’s Most TRANSformative Moments.” The lede to the story: “Bruce Jenner has been spotted looking pretty bizarre over the past year, but nothing beats his latest looks!”
And of course there was the transphobic InTouch cover, released three weeks before the more reputable TMZ and People reports, that was in shockingly poor taste: a photoshopped image of Jenner with make up and the baiting headline: “My Life As a Woman.”
The obtuseness and ignorance that much of the American public has towards gender identity and what it means to be trans has already and will likely continue to infiltrate media conversation about Jenner. It’s tempting to vilify Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade for offensively scoffing, “OK, I don’t know. I just don’t see him on a Wheaties box again in the future,” after the InTouch controversy bubbled. But, to be fair, I don’t think he’s the only person to think that way.
But then on Friday, Slate praised Us Weekly for running what it called a “surprisingly respectful” cover story about Jenner’s gender identity. It’s true. Where InTouch was crude and garish, Us Weekly was commendably sensitive and subtle. That’s reassuring. And the 180 change in tone in the way TMZ is covering Bruce Jenner from before this news broke to now is sharp enough to give a person whiplash. That’s also a good thing.
As Jenner’s transition becomes, as it sadly will, a media spectacle, we can only hope that such care will continue. But we doubt it will.
This whole thing has already become a bit of a gossip-rag circus. The tightrope of taste will only support so many members of the media walking on it for so long before it snaps. It’s a matter of time before everyone runs loose with the clowns, exploiting the public interest in the very personal journey with the media’s usual lack of regard for sensitivity.
We are going to report on, pick apart, analyze, and opine on every detail of the operation without due consideration for the intimacy of the experience and the psychological toll it takes on a person privately—even if the person we’re reporting on has willingly turned a camera on his own life for the past decade and will apparently continue to do so as he transitions. Writers who cover these things will feel obliged, as have I, to write about it. Reporters will deem it in the public’s interest to get as many details on the process as possible. Is Jenner’s transition in the public interest? Well, the public is certainly interested. Aren’t you?
I spent a brief time working as a red carpet reporter for a weekly celebrity gossip magazine. Whenever a breaking celebrity news story—of which this is a shining example—takes over the water cooler, the magazine’s reporters, like myself, were fanned out to get reaction from every single celebrity at an event at that time, regardless of whether they knew the relevant celebrity and especially regardless of whether it made any sense that they should have any sort of opinion on the matter.
“Excuse me, 2Chainz. Do you have any reaction to Bruce Jenner’s transition?” “Lisa Vanderpump! Hi! Any fashion advice for Bruce Jenner as he transitions into a woman?” “Do you have a message for the Kardashian family, Arianna Huffington?”
You laugh. But this will happen. And we owe it to Jenner to be better than that.
It seems counterintuitive that we owe a member of a family that had been prostituting their every drama, vulnerability, victory, and humiliation for ratings, page views, and ad dollars any semblance of privacy, or that we should return the open invitation they’ve given us to pry into their lives with abandon.
But there’s a disconnect between what we are, at this early juncture, perceiving is going on with Jenner and what is likely actually happening. We are all pontificating on his “decision” to transition. When someone “decides” to do something, they are expected to defend that decision—to explain that decision; to rationalize that decision; and, if you’re a public figure, to do that explaining and rationalizing in the press.
But describing being trans—or becoming trans—in that way is problematic because it is not a decision. It is not a choice. It is intrinsic. It is innate. It is who the person is.
By that regard, we shouldn’t demand that a person explain themselves and that process to us. But with Bruce Jenner, we will. We will demand that he talks about it. And because of that he will now be a mouthpiece for the trans movement, whether or not he wants to be, and whether or not he should be.
It’s the kneejerk response in journalism too, whenever there is news relating to a specific community, reach out to the most famous member of that community for comment. Any journalist who’s been in a newsroom knows this.
“Chelsea Handler is leaving her talk show? Someone should reach out to Rosie O’Donnell for comment—she’s a woman who left a talk show!” “Did an actor just come out? Who’s reaching out to Ellen? She came out once!” Even when it makes sense, the practice can be unusual. “Bill Cosby is being accused of rape. Have we reached out to every single person who has ever appeared on The Cosby Show for comment yet?”
We have a tendency of turning celebrities into activists, and we’re about to turn Bruce Jenner into one for the trans community.
But he’s not one. Janet Mock is one. Laverne Cox is one. Bruce Jenner simply, at least at this moment, has the misfortune of having to live out what might be the most important journey of his life on the covers of grocery line gossip rags. Somehow, Bruce Jenner is going to have to get used to being a spokesperson, of speaking for not just himself but a ‘community’ that needs spokespeople. That’s quite a minefield to negotiate.
When I first expressed my worries about whether the media would cover Jenner’s transition with respect, several people brought up the recent embracing of Transparent as proof that we’re mature enough and enlightened enough and educated enough as a society to do so.
Of course, comparing Jenner’s journey to the spectacular Amazon TV show is like comparing apples to apples played by straight people who aren’t actually trans. It’s easier to cheer Transparent when the lead trans woman is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who will all know is straight and all know is an actor. When it’s a real person, and that real person is Bruce Jenner, who we’ve ridiculed so often in the past, will that same level of seriousness and sincerity be there?
Depressingly, it doesn’t appear that way. It’s telling that Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who is probably the last person you’d think would make light of Jenner’s story, uploaded an image of Jenner and the Kardashians Photoshopped onto a Transparent marketing poster to her Facebook page. It was captioned, “I couldn’t not. Someone sent it to me. Tell me it’s wrong and I’ll take it down.”
Several people called Soloway out, and she took it down. The message about the level of respect we feel we owe Jenner was transmitted in no uncertain terms. Let’s hope for more of the same in the coming days and weeks.