Osamudia James has written a thought-provoking article at The Washington Post, saying Rachel Dolezal doesn’t understand what it means to be African American. Ironically, what James wrote can be applied to Bruce Jenner. While Dolezal appropriated blackness—a mere social construct that’s fluid—Jenner appropriated femaleness—a biological construct that’s fixed. When you compare the two, Jenner’s is the most egregious. Yet Jenner is defended in his delusion while Dolezal is excoriated.
To see the hypocrisy of those who say transgender is legitimate, even normal, but transracial is not, simply insert “woman” for “black” and “Jenner” for “Dolezal” and rework the relevant content in James’s article. Here’s what that would sound like.
As a woman, what should I make of Bruce Jenner? Is Jenner a woman because he successfully duped people into seeing him as a woman? And what do his ideas about womanhood tell us about how men understand being a woman?
These are tricky questions.
Jenner has appropriated a female identity to film a reality television show and become part of a community that isn’t actually his own. Pictures of him feature thick, flowing hair. His nails are long and brightly colored; his clothes sultry and fashionable. In photos, he arranges his very glossy lips into a pout, as if to present them as full and sexy.
In interviews about his background, he tells stories about wearing his sister’s dresses and his mother’s scarves; choosing to be unfair to his first wives regarding his true sexual identity; telling his first wife that he was just into cross-dressing, that they’d work it all out; getting caught by his daughter wearing one of her dresses; and worrying about what he’s going to wear to receive his courage award.
In these stories and images, I see ladyface—he gathered limited and stereotypical notions about female aesthetics, using them to inform a “woman costume”—including getting fake breasts—to wear out into the world.
In peddling this narrative, Jenner misses the actual day-to-day psychic tolls that accompany womanhood. Not every woman likes fashion, getting her nails done, shopping, or tweeting about what she’s going to wear to an awards show. Rather, the experience of womanhood more often includes subtle, but more indelible, phenomena: the learning, as a child, of gender narratives of inferiority; the frustration of navigating a society where women are not treated equally to men; the labor of female caregivers who cultivate resiliency and pride in their little ones despite the experience of discrimination against women.
Womanhood is also an intergenerational experience and a historical consciousness borne out of feminist struggles, but one that has also produced valuable cultural and intellectual expression, human ingenuity and reinvention, and importantly, pride. Our resilience is borne out of childhood that yes, presents challenges and exposes us to discrimination, but also results in a lived, day-to-day feminist experience that enriches our lives and informs the world; an experience to which Jenner may not fraudulently lay claim, whether or not people have believed his farce. He has engaged in a superficial deployment of womanhood, but his choice does not legitimate his anemic hold on a biological construct neither assigned to nor actually experienced by him before his lies began.
To label his assumed identity acceptable or authentic because he effectively played into extreme stereotypes about clothing and experiences is to buy into the flawed assumption that womanhood is only about how one looks and behaves. And if womanhood, and the female experience, is only performance, then what follows is the dangerous and incorrect assumption that women would be better off if they performed differently; if, in fact, they performed more like men.
For Jenner and, I fear, many other men, womanhood is mere stereotypical performance: jewelry, nails, clothing, and hair. It is not exposure to a sexually hostile world, or the mental work of cultivating dignity, fortitude and hope in the face of that hostility. Nevertheless, I hope the conversations we will surely have in the upcoming days about his “transgender status” will help us understand that there is no difference between pretending to be black and pretending to be a woman. Both are lies. With a biological construct forming his identity as a man, Jenner was neither a girl at birth, nor subject to the social experiences—good and bad—of womanhood in his developing and formative years. Rather, Jenner has merely performed and pretended to be a woman, appropriating a character and getting plastic surgery. I am disheartened by what the discards of his costume say about what he understood womanhood to be.