Back in the 1980s and 90s when I was a high school English teacher you know I loved teaching Shakespearean plays. When my students saw Shakespeare’s portrait they were sure he was gay because of his long hair and earring. (Styles were more circumscribed then.) I loved telling them about wealthy men sitting on the Globe’s stage to show off their elaborate dress and their tight stockings, albeit with a generous well placed codpiece.
It shook up their expectations, which I thought was important. I hoped it helped them to not be so judgmental. Then we would read that very violent play, Macbeth. So men in those times in fancy clothes and with poetic words could be as bloody and violent as the action heroes of today. A dubious achievement to be sure.
In Elizabethan times men wore rich clothes and wrote elaborate love poems to their male friends. Marrying was often seen as only their duty to their families to produce an heir. But love went to their male friends. Maybe that acceptance helped men feel more comfortable in their sartorial choices. Of course life for women then was pretty miserable, but that is another story.
Which brings me to Caitlyn Jenner. Her coming out as a trans woman in that cover in Vanity Fair is troubling to me. Why? As a mother of a you, a gay son, you know I want to promote acceptance for all. As a feminist, I am happy for someone who can proclaim to the world who she is. And I am. If this is what she needs to feel whole, then good for her.
But the photo bothers me, as do aspects of Jenner’s famous interview with Diane Sawyer. It bothers me that she proclaims that male and female brains are different. For decades we feminists have been protesting that very regressive idea. Each human’s brain may be different but to essentialize male and female brains is wrong-headed.
In addition, to say to be “woman” is to wear certain clothes and present in a glamorous photo op is troubling. According to the interview, Jenner claimed a desire to wear nail polish till it chips off. Is this how she proclaims femininity? Too many of us in the 70s fought for our right not to be defined by what we wore or how we groomed. Of course it is important to be welcoming and inclusive. But also we must be careful to affirm the rights of all women no matter if they wear makeup or nail polish or choose to wear their hair short and wear men’s shoes, ala Alison Bechdel, the lesbian author of Fun Home.
I hope there will be a broader acceptance of a variety of gender roles and gender identification, that we will move away from self-definition by appearance. The proliferation in the global village of photos has only exacerbated this trend. We are even more defined by how we look. (Which is a problem for those of us getting older I must admit!) Maybe if men and women could more easily dress how they wanted, then gender issues would not cause so much internal upheaval.
I wish we could bring back the elaborate choices of dress and self-expression open to men in Shakespeare’s time, but also leave women freer to not conform to glamour shots so common in the today’s media. I wish that a trans woman did not feel that the only way to show femininity is by push up bras and nail polish. I wish we could all be judged by the “content of our character”.
I want to say to Ms Jenner, I hope you start to say that loud and clear from your very broad media perch. You have an opportunity to really be a voice for courage and acceptance. And not just for the narrow view of appearance only.