Since this is such a fiercely debated topic, particularly among religious types this month, I’ll take a moment here to weigh in with my perspective on Mr./Ms. Jenner issue for the record. In doing so though I’ll make an exception to my regular habit of posting a picture or two with each blog entry, because the general obsession with this individual’s visual appearance is clearly part of the problem.
When I was 14 years old I actually dated a girl who had a bit of a crush on Bruce Jenner. He was definitively masculine, but in a suitably moderate way, well-spoken, strongly ambitious and self-disciplined, and capable of winning competitions across a fairly wide range of sporting events. He was sort of “vanilla” in a number of senses –– nothing particularly edgy or dramatic about him –– but as disposable breakfast cereal advertising mannequins of that era went he had more of a claim to public respect than most.
In the years thereafter then I get where he, as Bruce, struggled to maintain his role as a husband, a father, a step-father, and most of all, as a B-list celebrity. I haven’t really bothered following the details, but I get that, while he never went through the trauma of a post-celebrity “riches to rags story” (like Tina Turner’s era living on food stamps after her break-up with Ike), life has been quite complicated and challenging for him in his four decades in various intensities of limelight. The common thread holding his life together though was that he could always make a safe, comfortable living off of just being a handsome man in the public eye in the company of beautiful women, with nothing beyond that really being expected of him. We call it celebrity for celebrity’s sake –– being famous mostly just for being famous –– going through the effort to remain fit and healthy looking, but exhibiting no particular special talents beyond that. That’s obviously a rather superficial way for anyone to live, but there are plenty of minor celebrities who play just such a role in American society in particular these days, and all-in-all Bruce probably played it with as much dignity as any of them.
One significant chapter of this story that I never really noticed first-hand as it was happening was his role in the whole Kardashian saga. Obviously I’ve noticed the pin-up competitions between the different sisters, and heard about the celebrity marriages based on the family’s “reality TV” fame, but other than Survivor I have to say that I’ve never really followed that genre, so I didn’t actually realize how much Bruce had to do with all that absurdity. Would those girls ever have become so rich and famous without building their own celebrity for celebrity’s sake on Bruce’s celebrity for celebrity’s sake? I really cannot say, but then again I really can’t think of many questions based on events in the international news media which are less relevant to life as I know it.
While on that topic, it’s also worth considering, how should the Jenner/Kardashian celebrity be compared to other such reality TV based vacuous celebrity producing enterprises such as The Osbournes, Duck Dynasty, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and/or “Real” Housewives of Wherever? To what extent are all of these signs of the post-Reagan cultural shift and decline in the American empire? Another question I can’t really definitively answer.
Whatever the case may be, Bruce, as Bruce, was clearly profiting from and enjoying his celebrity status during those years, but at the same time he was experiencing its fade into irrelevance –– thoroughly eclipsed by his step-daughter Kim’s breaking of the internet and all that. The “well-endowed” women with pretty faces were getting all of the major attention, and the big bucks. Could that have anything to do with his decision to become one of them? (For pronoun critics out there, the currently self-identified “she” was still a self-identified in the masculine while making that decision.) How far can this case of surgical self-reinvention be compared, for that matter, to the disturbing case of Michael Jackson? I don’t feel justified in drawing strong conclusions in this area, but since what we’re talking about here is the absurd arena of celebrity for celebrity’s sake here, I believe that these questions deserve to be asked.
As it happens, this week I’ve been spending quite a bit of time taking an on-line course, without credit possibilities, by watching Stanford University’s Youtube channel lectures by Robert Sapolsky on human behavioral biology. I strongly recommend the series for anyone who has a hundred hours or so to spare this summer for such things. In this series Professor Sapolsky strongly considers many aspects of what it means to be masculine and/or feminine, for many other species and for many mutated versions of humanity.
There are many fascinating aspects of the basis of gender and sexuality that we don’t have absolute scientific explanations for. It is clear that some parts of the brain tend to be bigger and more active in women than in men, and visa-versa, and that those with ambiguous gender identity do in fact often have brain morphology closer to the opposite gender than to the one they are physiologically identified with. So should they be allowed to change their physical gender identity to match their sense of self otherwise? Without allowing for any definitive ontological determination of what makes someone “really a woman” or “really a man,” Professor Sapolsky remains open-minded about the prospect of allowing people to have surgical gender reassignment to give them a greater sense of harmony with themselves. In evolutionary terms that may reduce one’s possibilities of passing on one’s genes, but there’s more to being a person than just reproducing. So how else might this sort of self-reinvention be a threat to anyone else, particularly to those outside of the gender ambiguity sufferer’s family?
It would seem that the reason this is considered to be a threat, by religious folks in particular, has to do with a concept of screwing up “God’s design” within each of us: that there is something holy and absolute about a man being a man and a woman being a woman. What can we say about that?
First of all, let’s be honest: the optimal situation for any person is to accept themselves for who they are, physically, mentally and in every other way; “warts and all.” Our bodies all vary a bit from what we might ideally like them to be, especially as the aging process moves along, but accepting my body as it is, as one of the primary determinants of what makes me me, and being at peace with it regardless of where it fails to measure up to my Platonic ideal for what sort of body I would like to have, is part of being a mentally healthy person. Yet that being said, I don’t have any crisis of conscience over the idea of having particular aspects of my body that might come to trouble me fixed: getting warts removed, getting treatment to keep my eyes working properly, and should it become necessary, having surgery to improve various aspects of my body’s to function, and perhaps even its appearance. (The latter is an extremely abstract idea for me, but I wouldn’t have a crisis of conscience over having it done.) So from there, when it comes to our bodies not matching up to our ideal self-image pictures of what they should be like, how do we go about deciding in which cases the body should be fixed and in which cases the conscious identity should be adjusted to accepting the body for what it is? Can I condemn those who have particular difficulties accepting the current state of their bodies gender-wise for wanting to get them “fixed”? I mean besides this being very much a “First World problem” –– related to abstract vagaries of identity dis-satisfaction, which are often based on the sort of dysfunctional media culture that we live in –– what’s the problem?
When it comes to things ranging from separating conjoined twins or correcting other birth defects, to reconstructing one’s appearance following a major accident or something like cancer surgery, I don’t think many religious people have a serious problem with doctors playing a major role in changing a person’s bodily identity. But when the “problem” is the body not matching the sense of gender identity that the person senses within her-/himself, why is that a more touchy matter for them? Perhaps the biggest question that disturbs people about the whole transsexuality issue here is whether manhood and/or womanhood as such are under some sort of threat. Most relevant in this case, is it still culturally acceptable to be proud of being a man? If so, what does that even mean these days? And then on the other side, can someone who has lived for over 60 years as a man really have any accurate idea about what his life really would have been like as a woman? This is to say nothing about the marketing confusion caused by having someone whose professional identity was very much based on providing a physical ideal for masculinity all of a sudden choose to physically be a woman instead. For those who draw their sense of gendered norms from the mass media, what does something like that do to their whole idea of what it means to be a man? I can sort of see where some might be a bit threatened by such a situation. And for those who believe that there is an eternal absolute standard for masculinity and femininity, each proscribed by God himself, I get where this sense of threat is all the more acute in relation to the Jenner case.
So what does it mean to be a man as such these days? Going back to Professor Sapolsky’s lectures, there are a few things worth noting in this regard. Most important, there is not a set “natural” mode for relations between the genders for humanity. Biologically speaking, as a species we are pretty seriously mixed up, being half way in between classic “tournament” species like baboons and “pair bonding” species like ostriches. We are neither naturally prone to monogamously mate for life, nor to accept the idea of only alpha males getting to mate with as many desirable females as they want and the rest going without. We have certain tendencies in both directions, but we are bound to neither orientation. Nature as such does not give us any particular moral imperative in terms of the “right way” for the genders to relate to each other, either in terms of our mating practices or in terms of our economic production practices. Toss in the added complication of the technology assisted lives we now lead reducing the logistical need for maintaining traditional gender roles based on physical capabilities and things have gone pretty thoroughly beyond of the realm where “proper” roles can be readily defined. We are cursed with rather extensive freedom in this area, and with a great deal of individual responsibility for what we do with that freedom, with little hope, in Western societies at least, of holding our sexual partners, or anyone else for that matter, to some eternal transcendent standards in these matters.
But beyond that there are at least two things which seriously set mankind apart from any other type of mammal or other animal: we have a far greater capacity for rational self-control, and a far greater capacity for empathy than the rest. No other creature can stop and think things through nearly as far as we do, and no other creature is capable of the sort of compassion that we, in the best case, are able to exercise towards those we see in conditions of unjust suffering. Through taking advantage of those traits, hopefully we can work our way through the current crisis of uncertainty regarding gender roles and mating practices. Hopefully individual couples can find ways to care for each other and work out the ambiguities of their mutual responsibilities well enough to keep societies going while these roles remain in flux.
Meanwhile it’s worth remembering, and/or pointing out to fundamentalists of various sorts who still don’t get it, that sticking to tradition for tradition’s sake –– in gender roles just like everything else –– just isn’t going to work.
So with all that taken into consideration, the celebrity formerly known as Bruce Jenner is really the least of our problems when it comes to the on-going significance of masculinity, or femininity. The process of gender reassignment surgery does involve somewhat more complications than most other forms of reconstructive surgery, but it need not be any significant threat to the rest of us. The more people there are who “get” that, the healthier society will be.
Frankly the thing that bothers me about Caitlyn’s new identity is not so much denial of her masculinity, but rather her denial of her being a 65-year-old has-been. So she has chosen to turn to the sort of doctors that are most easily found in the immediate vicinity of Hollywood to radically alter her persona, in ways that makes her a hero to some and a freak to others… which, for someone seriously addicted to the limelight, is far more satisfying than irrelevance at least. In other words accepting that transsexuals can be perfectly healthy and well-adjusted members of society in their reassigned gender identity does not automatically imply that this particular individual should be considered as either mentally healthy or “normal” in any other context than the abstract world of reality TV’s system of producing celebrities for celebrity’s sake. And yes, I do see that whole industry as both reflecting and producing some serious societal dysfunctions.
I don’t deny that there might be some other sense of normal existence possible for her still, but in the unlikely case where something like that could come about, I don’t see any possibility of it having relevance to life as I know it. Still, for what little it’s worth, I do see Caitlyn’s post-surgical persona as slightly closer to “normal” than Michael Jackson’s at least. Your mileage may vary.