How Fashion Media Coverage Of Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Identities Can Be Problematic
Since her Vanity Fair cover, Caitlyn Jenner style stories have been in high volume and demand. This is, of course, a huge win for the transgender community. A couple weeks ago, people all over the Internet were praising Caitlyn Jenner's magazine cover, and commenting positively on her beauty and exceptional taste in style. For the media and fashion industries to begin to discuss Caitlyn in the context of her fashion sense, while not questioning the validity of her identity, shows how much the activism of LGBT people fighting for visibility has paid off (though it also makes clear that being a woman means having people take a looks-first approach to any media coverage of you).
Despite this overwhelming tilt towards progression and acceptance of trans people, the media representation of this community is not above critique. Even though trans visibility is at an all-time high, thanks in part to celebrity representatives such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, transphobia and oppressive ways of thinking are still very much present. The media, although usually meaning well in this case, is seemingly unsure of how to write style stories about queer/trans people without being a little condescending and ignorant. Such transphobia and other microaggressions toward the queer community are often overlooked because of their subtlety. But just because a publication isn't outrightly condemning a person's identity, and even if the correct pronouns are being used, there is still room for perpetuating oppression by implying that transfeminine people like Caitlyn Jenner are less womanly than cisgender women.
Last week, Caitlyn Jenner went to speak at an LGBT Youth Center, which resulted in what seemed to be The Outfit Seen 'Round The World. Multiple publications reported on what she wore for the occasion, being that this was the first time Jenner had made a public appearance since the release of her Vanity Fair cover. And in some cases, the reporting was a little unusual.
The first thing that struck me about the story was that so many publications, like Marie Claire and Us Weekly , were reporting (and in such a detailed way) an outfit which was super casual and ordinary. She wasn't wearing anything particularly stunning, eye-catching, or even designer. Extra even instructed readers how to "get the look," which consisted of three simple outfit pieces inspired by Jenner. This is natural seeing that the media and consumers of the media are absolutely fascinated with all things Caitlyn Jenner. Additionally, it's positive that a transgender person is given such constant attention by a media that loves her so much, as well as praising her for her style choices.
But what was most problematic about these stories were the things writers and reporters chose to discuss. Marie Claire's Jenner style piece pointed out Jenner's footwear in a condescending manner.
When Marie Claire shared this article on Facebook, and captioned it with "Caitlyn Jenner's Boots Are Ridiculous," and with the status "We don't know how she walks in these, but damn she looks good." I clicked the article in excited anticipation of a Lady Gaga crazy gravity-defying shoe. With the way they explained it, it seemed pretty insane, and I was looking forward to another famous fashionista repping the cool shoes that I'm such a big fan of.
Jenner was wearing knee high leather boots that had a heel no taller than two inches. As you can see from the photo above, the boot's heels are very average height and would clearly be very doable to walk in for most people. This type of commentary points at a bigger issue.
Pointing out that she's able to successfully walk in a pair of boots with a short heel implies that Caitlyn Jenner is somehow less of a woman than others, and therefore less capable of performing feminine beauty and fashion rituals. While cisgender women in the limelight are certainly subject to commentary on their appearance, it's rarely with such an underlying shock. Let's face it: If Jenner was a cis woman, she wouldn't be praised for being able to walk in some basically-flat boots. Unfortunately, we expect and assume these things of women in our society, especially when concerning celebrities. But somehow, we expect it less from Jenner.
A CNN article about the Vanity cover shoot also pointed out Jenner's ability to be feminine. The writer quoted LA stylist Naz Meknat, who stated, "Her taste in wardrobe so far is impeccable, tasteful, classy, and ladylike. The dresses she wore in Vanity Fair's spread shows how comfortable she already is with her femininity." The wording of this statement, particularly the first sentence, is a condescending judgment on Jenner's presentation based on heteronormative standards and the idea that we need to applaud Jenner in surprise as she pulls off looking like a woman.
In addition, the way in which he refers to her feeling comfortable in her femininity is assumptive and invasive. Not only do we, as fashion writers and people living outside of her experience, not have any right to talk about the nuances of her gender identity, but it's also obnoxious to be talking about only one femininity. Wearing beautiful dresses and having a flawless face contour does not necessarily mean you are claiming femininity, based on your definition of it and how you identify.
I know that many of the writers reporting on this outfit, and for any compassionate journalist covering Caitlyn Jenner, that they mean incredibly well. By covering her style in such a hyper aware manner is clearly a loving effort to show support and resulting in gaining trans people more visibility in our society and media. However, it is very important to pay attention to how we're treating her, and to analyze our language and assumptions concerning transfeminine people.