(Reuters) - The first take was — wow! What a coup. What courage. What a pose. Ladies and gentlemen and everyone along the sexual spectrum, here she is: Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion making the transition from a Wheaties box to Vargas-girl cheesecake on the cover of the new “Vanity Fair.”
Imagining her long exile in the wrong skin, the wrong body, I was thrilled for her — and all who will take heart in her leap — but also disturbed at the predictably alluring female attire and flowing locks.
For all the steps forward taken by Caitlyn — soon to be known as Cait, after her reality series gets up and running — there was the troubling sense she also was falling into seductive feminine stereotypes. Having satisfied the notions of heroic masculinity as an Olympic champ, she is now fulfilling the ultimate stereotypes of femininity. A swing right across the gender spectrum from one extreme ideal to the other.
That left a rueful taste at a moment when so many of us are cheering on our new Cait. Forget that other Kate, the Brit princess. We’ve got the bold new version. Too bad she succumbed to such a predictable female presentation, what “Los Angeles Times” art critic Christopher Knight called “a pedestrian celebrity pastiche of rather tired visual clichés.”
I suppose it was too hard to resist: the lure of the glam queen look. Having made the incredibly courageous journey out of one sex and into the other, perhaps you just had to go full-tilt, cleavage-baring pin-up, your new breasts on proud display. Certainly the culture has been retro-rife with such imagery, personified and magnified umpteen times by Caitlyn’s own brood, the Kardashians, with their barely there dresses and their booties, real or enhanced.
Watching the then-Bruce on their reality show over the past stretch of years, run all over by the bodacious and dramatic females around him, was to empathize with a man who often seemed overwhelmed by the estrogenic spectacle around him. No doubt also overwhelmed by the secret he felt forced to keep for so long.
At the same time, these women — his wife, two daughters and three step-daughters — have offered him the most available up-close and daily example of what it looks like to be or act female. They are the apotheosis of commercially viable glamor. Sometimes their act seems self-amused, cheeky, as if they are taking the cliché of feminine allure and revving it to the exhibitionistic max. Not to mention giggling all the way to the bank.
Caitlyn has been in their company for decades. And she clearly loves them, and they her, one of the truly touching notes of this transitioning narrative. She seems, in her debut, to be following their lead.
That’s the concern. “Transgender people expose the fallacy of the natural dichotomy of masculine/feminine,” says Caroline Heldman, political science professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Caitlyn’s transformation makes me so happy on one level, but on another level, it reifies socially constructed and damaging gender roles.”
Heldman has thought and written a lot about those gender roles — especially when it comes to young women. She says they are being bombarded by hyper-sexualized and stereotypical images every day that help keep them off-balance and insecure, filling them with a body preoccupation — thighs too fat, breasts too small, behind not ample enough. That is leading not only to record numbers of eating disorders but also to stunted ambition as they become preoccupied with appearance over achievement.
Young women worry too much about the externals rather than the internals. They try to satisfy not only the beauty ideals but also the dictates of idealized feminine behavior: Don’t be tough, keep your voice down. Like Kim K, who has a notably cooing voice despite her clear drive for success. We have come a long way baby, to end up back here.
Every time you open a fashion or celebrity magazine or watch the nightly entertainment shows, you are treated to endless pictures of preening, posing females. Body, body, body. When the other Kate steps out, the first thing the headline screams is: body after baby, admiring her ability to shed those post-partum pounds in a nanosecond.
That focus always makes me crazy, as if a new mother has to, as quickly as possible, de-maternalize herself and reconfirm her status as sex object.
Even older women in their 60s and 70s are now fair game. They are expected to meet the same beauty requirements, the same dictates of culturally sanctioned femininity. And the marketplace is ever eager to exploit and profit from them.
Which brings us back to Caitlyn, who is, after all, 65. I am not suggesting she should look like Mrs. Doubtfire. I am just a bit saddened by the capitulation to norms. Maybe it’s not fair to ask her to be a dual role model, as it were — an example for the transgender community and also for women. Maybe that’s a whoppingly tall order.
There was one thing I did like in that cover shot. There was a sweetness in her eyes, a shyness. This wasn’t a brassy femme fatale. This was no Kim Kardashian. Not yet, anyway.
For all the requisite feminine iconography — the cascading hair, the silk bustier, the soft makeup — there was almost a tentativeness that makes me think (or certainly hope) that in the next photos we see of Caitlyn, she won’t be in a bikini or a see-through dress.
(Anne Taylor Fleming was a longtime commentator for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of two novels and one nonfiction book, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.” The opinions expressed here are her own.)
Anne Taylor Fleming