By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
This will come as no surprise to you, unless you happen to currently reside under a sizable chunk of stone: on “20/20” on ABC, Reporter Diane Sawyer sat down with former Olympian and current reality TV show family patriarch Bruce Jenner for an exclusive interview. In this interview, following months — even years — of speculation, Jenner disclosed that he is in the midst of a gender transition.
Jenner’s story is one that in many ways I’d rather not write about. In some ways, writing about it feels like I’m playing into the same sort of “media hype” I want to criticize. It feels hypocritical. At the same time, I feel that I cannot avoid writing about it.
There’s more to it, though. I can’t watch a transgender documentary or interview without it being, well, work. There’s remarkable little that will come up in such a context that is going to be that earth-shatteringly interesting to me.
Part of this is because of my own life experience, and I’ll admit that I saw a lot of my own life in Jenner’s history. No, I never competed in the Olympics, let alone received the gold in the decathlon: the specifics are quite different. Nevertheless, I too know what it is like to try to fight one’s transgender yearnings by force-feeding masculinity to yourself. I know the feelings of isolation dealing with this in an era before Internet connectivity — when information was few and far between. I also remember all too well the pain and hardship that goes hand in hand with the coming out process.
To Jenner’s credit, this was a better interview than many. He — and I should note that Jenner has asked via his publicist to use traditionally masculine pronouns and his birth name for the time being — carried himself well, and managed to control the interview with a fair amount of grace and humor.
Sure, there were a few missteps, in my opinion. For example, a rather embarrassing foray into Jenner’s closet to procure a little black dress, and a reply to the question, “What do you look forward to?” with a focus on nail polish. I also have seen more than a few transfolks early in their own transitions who have said and done similar, only to grit their teeth later on. I’m sure I’ve done the same, too.
I was especially glad to see him acknowledge some of the larger issues transgender people face, particularly around suicide and murder — while at the same time making it clear that he does not see himself as a transgender spokesman.
Yet while Jenner did pretty well, Sawyer and the “20/20” production crew fell into so many of the usual traps that accompany the typical transgender interview. She fell into so many of the old, tired stereotypes.
The production cuts away to family members to gauge their approval and disapproval, and talk about Jenner’s father and what he might have said. They pulled out Deuteronomy 23:5 from the Holy Bible and clips from Fox News. We are treated to B-roll images of women putting on makeup in mirrors.
Meanwhile, a lot of Sawyers questions and discussion fall along traditional lines. It’s all about stereotypes: how masculine Jenner was, especially in the Olympics era, is a large part of her narrative. Meanwhile, she often tries to boil it down to makeup, or clothing, or surgery.
At one point, Sawyer tells Jenner, incredulously, “I hate make up. I hate getting dressed up. You’re looking forward to this?” I certainly hope she does not think that womanhood simply equates to makeup, clothing and other such superficial things.
Yes, I also wear makeup, but not because I think foundation and eye shadow makes me a woman. I see it as more of a means to an end, something that helps others see who I am.
Yet this is what the media reduces us to, every single time a story like this airs.
Now, do I think this was an important moment, this two-hour interview? Yes and no.
That this episode was the highest rated in years for 20/20, and that every news outlet has yet to stop talking about it, says something. Rather than halting all the rabid speculation of the last few months, this seems to have further ignited an interest.
What’s more, I think this may well change some lives. Some may understand transgender people better in the wake of this. Some will learn a thing or two. It may help some young transgender people to understand themselves better. So yes, this may well help.
Yet, this is a bit more of what I was alluding to above when I discussed this not being particularly earth shattering. Jenner’s is nowhere near the first high-profile gender transition. This is part of a very long linage of transgender people in the media spotlight. Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s, Jan Morris, Wendy Carlos and Renee Richards in the 1970s, Caroline “Tula” Cossey in the 1980s, and many others predate Jenner by decades, while so many others have been in the spotlight in recent years.
All of these people have gone through the same questions — and more — from the media. So here we go again.
So this leaves me wondering: why do we still have to go through these interviews? What is it we’re not saying, and what isn’t getting through to people when we share our stories?
Perhaps that will be when I’ll truly be surprised: when a high-profile celebrity transitions and it doesn’t require an interview.