Elinor Burkett begins her recent New York Times editorial,
“Do women and men have different brains?
“Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.
“But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.”
In so doing, she holds up the perspective of the once-president of arguably the most elite university in the world next to the perspective of an olympic athlete and reality television star, as discursively comparable units, as though the two perspectives bare the same weight on feminist debate, gender politics, or the real lives of women. This is her second mistake. Her first was the mis-gendering of Caitlyn.
“This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.”
We can only err when we hold one woman’s expression of her own womanhood accountable for defining womanhood for everyone, Elinor. Here’s another fact: some women do have cleavage that boosts, poses that are sultry, and mascara that is thick, and Caitlyn Jenner is one of them (at least when she was doing her Vanity Fair photo shoot). Like other femmes, I’m sure that her gender expression finds a range of expressions depending on context, purpose, and degree of publicity. We can’t know for sure, but I venture to guess that Jenner’s stake in contributing to Vanity Fair was to express her womanhood (in ways of course, fully sanctioned by Vanity Fair and its aim — sales and profit), not to define womanhood for every woman, least of all you, Elinor. The distinction is important. If you’re waiting for one woman’s gender expression to do all of your feminist analytic work, you’ll be waiting a long time. We had this conversation about identity politics in ‘70s. And the ‘80s. And the ‘90s. Where have you been?
Burkett’s next claim is a doozy:
“People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner of Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.”
The paragraph is so reactionary, I am surprised it passed muster for a self-respecting publication like the New York Times. The logic here is puzzling, dare I say missing altogether. Elinor Burkett, no one is trying to define you, least of all Caitlyn Jenner for Pete’s sake! You get to be whatever kind of woman that you want to be. Isn’t that one of the things that your generation tried to teach us? You’re right, men have been defining women for too long, which is perhaps why you should take this discussion up with Charles H. Townsend, CEO of Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair. My point of course, is that you’re absolutely right about The Patriarchy’s definition of beauty standards. But. You can’t take an image of Caitlyn Jenner and divorce it from all of the systems that worked together to produce it; namely patriarchy as expressed by capitalism. At the same time, when a woman’s self-expression mimics common tropes of femininity, can you really blame the woman? Can you really hold her accountable for the damage done by the tropes themselves? If so, shan’t I call into question your regular use of facial makeup and, ironically, nail polish? Or would that be unfair? I bet you my entire life savings that Caitlyn has used far less mascara over the course of her lifetime than you have, Elinor.
Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler taught us that gender is compulsory; we are all mandatorily complicit in its oppressive systems. That’s the kicker; we can’t get out of it even if we try! This is precisely why personal expressions of identity are bad politics. Further, they shouldn’t be read as politics at all. And to do so — to read a pop star’s expression of her femininity as indicative of a feminist (or even a trans) politics — is to have wretched politics yourself. Worse, it is to have a completely inoperative politics, which is one of the many things that disappointed me most about Burkett’s piece. And we haven’t even gotten to her exclusion of trans women as women! Caitlyn hasn’t trampled you, Elinor.
Of transgender activists working to trouble some of the cis- and hetero-supremacist assumptions that we make about gender, and integrate those troublings into our language, Burkett complains, “The landscape that’s being mapped and the language that comes with it are impossible to understand and just as hard to navigate.” Yet it’s clear that Burkett hasn’t tried to understand or navigate. It’s clear that she hasn’t even read one real book or talked to one real trans person. Not that books and people are the only roads to understanding or navigation; but they are good starts — much better than the pop magazines and tweets that Burkett relies upon for her analysis, if we can even call it that.