Party of One

06.09.15 5:45 PM ET

Caitlyn Jenner Is Pissing Off Feminists and Bigots—Good for Her

The Vanity Fair transgender cover star has faced hostility from the often-transphobic right she claims as her own, as well as old-school feminists who question her womanhood and her wardrobe.

Caitlyn Jenner is a confounding figure: transgender and Republican, reality star and grandparent, men’s Olympic champion and Vanity Fair cover girl, a public figure with a private struggle.

It might seem like her story has something for everyone but the truth is that people who walk their own path have a funny way of pissing off the ideologically bound.

In the week since Jenner’s “Call Me Caitlyn” announcement on the cover of Vanity Fair, she has already come under fire from all sorts of political corners.

Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto immediately called her a sign of the “final days, presaging a wave of transphobic disgust from the Right.

The right-wing disgust has not been blanket, however.

On Sunday, 2016 presidential contender Lindsey Graham, while making clear his opposition to marriage equality and abortion, told CNN: “I’m a pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy, but I’m running to be president of the United States. If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be a Republican, she is welcome in my party.”

Jenner has also faced hostility from the Left. Eric Sasson wrote for the New Republic that the photo shoot was “distressing” because it encourages the objectification of women.

Gender Rights Maryland (GRMD) Executive Director Dana Beyer told Sasson that she would rather have seen Jenner in “a portrait of a professional and accomplished woman” than in “a cover girl bustier shot.”

But none of these liberal reactions—and the many more too numerous to list here—have been quite as wrongheaded as the op-ed that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday.

Feminist journalist Elinor Burkett—last seen “pulling a Kanye” at the 2010 Oscars—penned the rambling and speciously argued piece in which she repeatedly misgenders Jenner and accuses her of promoting gender stereotypes.

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women—our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods—into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes,” Burkett writes, alleging that Jenner is undoing her hard work.

Extrapolating from a few, offhand statements Jenner made in her interview with Diane Sawyer and in her Vanity Fair feature, Burkett paints Jenner as a caricature of femininity, someone who has no idea what it means to be a woman beyond “nail polish” and “girls’ nights.”

“People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women … shouldn’t get to define us,” she declares.

A photo editor views the July cover of Vanity Fair featuring Caitlyn Jenner on June 1, 2015 in Westwood, California. Formerly known as Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner is an Olympic atlete who came out publicly as transgender in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer.

Frazer Harrison/Getty

Really, Burkett’s mean-spirited critique seemed to boil down to her view that Jenner wasn’t a “real” woman, as she had not been born one anatomically: the oldest, most hurtful and disavowing transphobic canard.

But Jenner isn’t defining anyone but herself. If anything, her tone in the past week has been open and personal—and far from the declarative position that Burkett falsely attributes to her.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

In the trailer for her upcoming E! reality series, Jenner says, “You go through all of this stuff and you start learning the pressure that women are under all of the time about their appearance.”

That doesn’t sound like an imposter trying to impose a superficial definition of womanhood onto others, it sounds like a young woman—albeit a 65-year-old young woman—who is quickly learning what it means to live as one.

This same humility is evident on Jenner’s Instagram, where she recently posted a picture of herself standing arm in arm with other women atop the caption: “Learn from those who have walked the path before you.”

So if Jenner has never claimed to speak for all women—and she hasn’t—then what exactly is the cause of Burkett’s discomfort with her?

At the risk of endorsing another hoary stereotype, Burkett seems to subscribe to the antiquated feminist notion that traditionally feminine style is incompatible with political empowerment.

In a bit of clear bad faith, Burkett argues that the Vanity Fair shoot reveals “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, [and] thick mascara.” Nevermind that she’s since been spotted wearing jeans and casual daywear.

Burkett even takes aim at Jenner’s passing comment in the Sawyer interview that she looked forward to being able to wear nail polish without having to take it off right away.

In the context of that interview, Jenner’s remark was a poignant synecdoche for the secrecy of her lifelong struggle. In Burkett’s hands, it becomes an excuse to deliver the snide stinger: “Nail polish does not a woman make.”

But in the arena of style, too, Jenner has been anything but prescriptive. She’s been taking her cues from the fashionable women in her family, of which there are many.

In part one of the Keeping Up with the Kardashians “About Bruce” special, Khloe Kardashian brings Jenner some Louboutins.

“I don’t know her taste yet,” Khloe says, referring to Caitlyn, “so I’m trying to figure that out.”

“Well, to be honest with you, I don’t know her taste either,” Jenner confesses. “But do you know how nice this is? Without even opening them, do you know how nice this is?”

In the second part of the special, Kim Kardashian helps Jenner sort through her wardrobe, making a face at a daring leopard-print dress, which appears to be one of the most revealing items in Jenner’s closet.

“I’ve got such an open mind,” Jenner says. “I like classy kind of stuff. That’s a little kind of, you know, your boobs are showing…”

Before assuming that Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman is restricted to being a bustier-clad seductress, perhaps she should be allowed some time to develop her own sense of style.

From what we’ve seen so far, Jenner’s tastes are fairly conservative, despite the glamour of the Vanity Fair cover, and she’s been turning to the Kardashian clan for guidance through the early stages of her transition.

The gracious Jenner that we see on Keeping up with the Kardashians is a far cry from the overprivileged wannabe woman that Burkett seems to see when she looks at her. But Burkett probably can’t be bothered to watch a show with so much cleavage and makeup. It’d be beneath her outdated feminist principles.

The simple truth is that older feminists like Burkett often hypocritically hold transgender women to higher standards of dress and decorum than they do their cisgender counterparts.

In a generous reading, it can be seen a form of hazing but, at its worst, it’s a thinly-veiled way to express generalized discomfort with the very idea of transgender women, especially those who present in a traditionally feminine way.

As proof, consider that plenty of famous cisgender women have appeared in Vanity Fair in low-cut tops and lingerie with nowhere near the same level of scrutiny from feminists.

As Lizzie Crocker notes, Jenner is the oldest woman to appear on the cover but, at age 64, Cher wasn’t far behind her, appearing on the December 2010 cover “dressed like a burlesque dancer in a black leotard, fishnet stockings, and dagger-like stilettos.”

Where was Burkett’s searing op-ed about Cher’s Vanity Fair cover?

Like Cher, transgender women don’t have an inherent responsibility to deconstruct feminine norms of appearance and behavior.

As Jaclyn Friedman put it in her own rebuttal to Burkett’s piece on Dame, “Trans people are not magical gender warriors.”

Transgender women can be feminists and they can not be feminists. They can be Democrats or, like Jenner, they can be wealthy Republicans. Their existence may be inherently politicized in the current American climate, but that doesn’t mean they must be political themselves.

And therein lies the unifying problem with the varied responses to Jenner’s announcement, Burkett’s included: They all want her to be someone other than herself.

Folks in the Fox News crowd want Jenner to ignore her need to transition for the sake of their own, bigoted comfort.

On the other side of the aisle, critics like Burkett want something that may even be more pernicious because of its subtlety: They are fine with her being a woman so long as she obeys their constricting rules for proper womanhood.

But Caitlyn Jenner is a legend twice over and legends don’t get that way by playing by other people’s rules.

No one bound by the abstractions of a pre-programmed political worldview will be completely satisfied with her—not the Left, not the often-transphobic Right she claims as her own, and not the old-school feminists who question her womanhood and her wardrobe.

For those who can see Jenner as a person and not a political chess piece, her independence won’t be a problem. Social data intelligence company Talkwalker told The Daily Beast that less than 20 percent of the social media conversation around Caitlyn Jenner was negative in the first 24 hours after the Vanity Fair reveal. Reactions to her transition have been generally favorable, especially in the fashion world.

Her popularity to the general public may be surprising given her transgender status, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Her life has unfolded like a kaleidoscopic and distinctly 21st-century epic poem, with so many verses and such narrative variety that it’s hard not to find some piece of it engaging. There’s athletic prowess for the ESPN crowd, a public transition tale for the LGBT community, and a sensational family life for the millions of Kardashians viewers.

For increasingly irrelevant political critics looking for a hill to die on, Caitlyn Jenner will continue to provide just that. But Jenner herself will keep on being, well, Caitlyn Jenner. That’s the only way to put it.