Vv Magazine’s fashion editor Philip Mak examines the relationship between Bruce Jenner, trans rights, and fashion…
“I am a woman.”
That’s how Bruce Jenner identifies himself and would like the world to follow suit, for all intents and purposes. There’s no way of confirming it, but I suspect even the nomadic desert tribes of Mongolia were aware of Jenner’s highly publicized announcement last Friday. Long preceded by lurid paparazzi shots and tabloid speculation, it came as no surprise to even those only peripherally cognoscente of pop culture.
Interestingly, Jenner decided to continue going by male pronouns throughout his two-hour interview with veteran Diane Sawyer, though this was in keeping with the overall tone of the special. Namely, spoon feeding and easing the American public into the terminologies, theories, and realities of being a trans individual. Perhaps the harder pill to swallow, particularly for the generation that knows Jenner more as the Olympic gold medalist than the doddering dad from Keeping Up With the Kardashians, is that a Cold War athletic hero, a man who was quite literally the picture of masculinity, could abandon that male privilege to become a woman.
As the long-time patriarch of America’s #1 reality television family, Jenner’s looks have been the subject of ridicule and speculation. A veritable dreamboat until the early 1980s, his face began to inexplicably change around that time. Long thought to be cheap or botched cosmetic surgery, all came to be revealed in the Diane Sawyer interview that these facials alterations were the initial stages of a gender transition Jenner was undertaking that he ultimately stopped when he met Kris Kardashian. Ironically, as those who watch the show already know, she ultimately removed him of his manhood anyways. I kid. As Jenner said to Sawyer, we do have to keep a little bit of humour about this.
It seems that Jenner’s official “coming out” (for lack of a better term) as transgender is happening at a time when the issue has already been covered by more niche spheres of the popular zeitgeist. From award-winning critical juggernauts like Transparent and Orange is the New Black, to more light-hearted LGBT political megaphones like Glee, trans issues have been percolating rapidly from the subculture to the mainstream for most of the last decade.
As gay and trans rights become more widely accepted, so does an increasing plurality of gender expressions. As noted in my recent piece on the media’s treatment of Jaden Smith’s androgynous style, we still have a ways to go. Even fashion, long posited as being on the forefront and cutting edge of culture, has some catching up to do. In a recent Vogue interview, famed transwoman model Andreja Pejic speaks of how you have to be more than “just a gimmick.”
Interestingly Pejic, who recently underwent gender confirmation surgery (the more current and preferred alternative term to gender reassignment surgery), was told that she would lose her edge if she transitioned. One agent even told her, “It’s better to be androgynous than a tranny.”
This is not to say that fashion hasn’t also been welcoming to trans individuals. Barney’s spring 2014 campaign featured 17 trans models, while others (including Pejic, Ines Rau, and Arisce Wanzer) continue to see steady success. But what that agent said to Pejic highlights an uncomfortable reminder of our culture’s transphobic and patriarchal leanings; that it is still better to be a boy who dresses like a girl than to abandon that male privilege altogether.
But the institution is changing. With the old guard slowly leaving –and with fashion awash with androgyny this year— the next generation of designers may have skipped a step in social evolution. Quoted in the same Vogue article, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, the 27-year-old designers behind Eckhaus Latta, simply don’t see androgyny and trans models as that big a deal. “We’re obviously very open to non-normative ideas of what a model should be, but it’s never like, ‘Oh, this piece is about trans identity!’” says Latta. “This isn’t novelty for us,” adds Eckhaus. “This is the world. These are people.”
The nonchalance towards gender that androgynous fashion represents is the idealistic utopia that we ultimately should be striving for. While there is still much fighting to do for trans rights, the dream is that someday we will reach a place where people are treated as people.
Love the Kardashians or not, Bruce Jenner moved our society one big step closer to that dream. Much like the decathlon that shot him to fame in Montreal’s 1976 Olympics, the race is long and hard, with no finish line immediately in sight. While there is much speculation as to whether Jenner will become an advocate for the cause, it really is inconsequential; that’s up to him… or her, as we should be referring to her moving forward. This is not a race that can be won by one person, rather it’s a movement that we need to undertake as a society. By shedding such an enormous light on trans issues, she has already done quite enough. We’ll take it from here, Bruce.
Please note: While Bruce Jenner has come out as a woman, he has not yet indicated that he would like to be known by a new name or female pronouns, so this story uses male pronouns.
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