Caitlyn Jenner portrait “a picture from the past rather than the present.”

caitlynjennerOne of the things about L.A. I’m really going to miss is reading the shrunken, vestigial, adware-addled Denver Post instead of the rich and lively LA Times, and one of the writers I’ll miss most is art critic Christopher Knight.  Here’s his review of Caitlyn Jenner’s big reveal portrait by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Vanity Fair published yesterday.

For all the advance buildup, the picture feels flat — a pedestrian celebrity pastiche of rather tired visual cliches. That’s too bad. Jenner’s courage in taking control of the public process of coming out as transgender is bold, and this will be the most widely seen initial image.

.       .       .       .       .

[T]he Vanity Fair photograph seems a missed opportunity — a picture from the past rather than the present. Maybe that’s because all its conventional, glamour-girl signals weigh down the lively fluidity swirling at the center of gender identity.

After describing work by photographer Catherine Opie and Judith Butler, and explaining that a more expansive and complicated vision of gender performance has been part of both the feminist and LGBT movements’ DNA since the early 1990s, Knight writes that the VF cover appears to have missed these conversations entirely.  Instead, it’s a portrait of a 60-something woman by a 60-something woman that feels dated and conventional.  “Leibovitz’s Caitlyn Jenner is a newfangled Vargas girl, one of those airbrushed cuties from the old pages of Playboy. Is that all there is?”

As someone who regularly posts pinup cowgirls produced in the middle of the twentieth century, you’d think I might take offense, but I agree entirely.  (This is a history blog, not a modern magazine!  Also, whatever you might want to imagine, I’m much more conservatively kitted out than those cuties on my blog.)

Knight’s review reminded me of one of my favorite Nora Ephron essays of all-time, her 1974 review of pioneering transwoman Jan Morris’s memoir Conundrum.  Anticipating Butler’s and other 1980s and 90s feminists’ notion of gender as performance, Ephron noted that she read Morris’s book “with a great deal of interest, largely because I always wanted to be a girl, too.”  But the feminist writer was appalled by Morris’s embrace of every cliche of womanhood:  “Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman,” Ephron wrote. “What she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a forty-seven-year-old girl. And worst of all, a forty-seven-year-old Cosmopolitan girl.”

Knight seems to be suggesting the same thing:  why are our imaginations of “the feminine” so limited and conventional?  This is not just a Morris or a Jenner or a transwoman problem–their self-representations are shaped not just by what they see as feminine, but also what the larger public, celebrity photographers, and mainstream magazines believe will sell as a performance of embodied womanhood.

Knight acknowledges Jenner’s courage in making a later-in-life transition, and also that there are other possible readings of her portrait by Leibovitz:

One woman picturing another (also “of a certain age”) as a standard sex symbol does nicely smudge conventional strictures around bodily shame. And what happens to established theories of the male gaze when a transgender woman is photographed by an artist who may have been shy to identify as a lesbian, while happy to celebrate being the lover of the late Susan Sontag, the cultural critic whose book “On Photography” is standard reading?

In the end, though, Knight concludes that “a rather momentous social and cultural event seems somehow diminished by representation as a mere me-too pinup picture.  Jenner has set out on a rocky path that many before her have taken, but the global celebrity that preceded her transition is distinctive. A similarly singular quirk is missing from her decidedly ordinary portrait photograph.”

Go read Knight’s entire review, and discuss!

34 thoughts on “Caitlyn Jenner portrait “a picture from the past rather than the present.”

  1. Don’t know much about photography, but what’s up with Buzz Bissinger being the story-writer? An old time Philly “Inkwire” guy, via somewhere in Texas, or Television. It all seems kind of remote from whatever may be going on up at Kensington and Allegheny, or down on Two Street, which I have no doubt includes all manner of issues relating to gender identity and performance. In my academic lifetime I’ve lived or at least significantly camped out in Chicago, L.A., and Boston, among major metropoli, besides Philadelphia, and the fading away of journalism in the latter place encapsulates the realities embedded in words like “shrunken,” “vestigial,” or “adware-addled.” Back when Buzz was a cub reporter chasing feature stories, it was anything but any of those words over at the Inky. I would love to see this story given to Pete Dexter, Dorothy Storck, or Steve Lopez (who I understand is now with the L.A. Times), but I think each of them might conclude that you just can’t extract a story from anything that has been run through the Kardashian mill. Maybe even a picture story.


  2. At the risk of slighting Annie Liebowitz’s photography, she’s not always innovative, though she’s usually interesting.This was in fact, a fairly standard VF cover shot (or maybe a Cosmo cover shot), like the one some years back that virtually erased Angelina Jolie into a generic sexy cover model. VF does these covers all the time.

    But I thought that was the point: that Caitlyn Jenner could be accepted as a cover model like all the rest is a statement in itself. She can be a “me-too pinup” or whatever she wants. It’s her choice. And when’s the last time you saw a 65+-year-old person on the cover of VF, let alone one made to look so stunning?


    • I hear you, but: feminists have complained for years about unrealistic beauty standards. Jenner is a celebrity of 40 years standing and presumably has made a nice living, and so has the benefit of the best plastic surgeons (not just for the trans surgery, but for the nipping and tucking and lifting on her face to counteract the effects of time.) Is this really a standard that most transwomen can or even want to live up to?

      I liked Knight’s review because he pointed to ways in which feminists blazed the trail for helping us accept other, more complex expressions of sex/gender identity. Why not be a bearded lady? Why not be a man with boobs? Etc. Do we all have to fit into the pinup box into our SIXTIES? Seventies? Eighties??? If we try to, those of us born girls and those of us who have had sex reassignment surgery (already an incredibly expensive and invasive experience) will have room in our heads (besides no time or money) for little else.


    • But I also hope that it is my talent, my intelligence, my heart and spirit that most captivate, inspire, move and encourage folks to think more critically about the world around them.

      As if I need another reason to LOVE Orange is the New Black & Laverne Cox!!! She’s a smart lady.

      Thanks, Lara!


      • Laverne Cox spoke on our campus, and it was one of the most amazing talks. A perfect mix of personal stories and history and feminist theory. I was so impressed. There was a great student turnout and everyone loved it.


  3. I have never much cared for Liebowitz’s portraits. They never seem to show me much new or interesting about their subjects. Maybe this is Jenner’s authentic vision of herself but maybe they are just genre photographs.

    Last night in the airport shuttle (homeward bound) I sat with two ladies in their 70s, one of whom had just purchased the latest issue of Women’s Weekly, not because she reads that magazine, but because Dame Judi Dench was on the cover. We all agreed that she is beautiful, and at 80, an inspiration about being who you want to be. Some part of the article was about Dench’s fear of being forgotten.

    Caitlyn Jenner lives in a world that I have never experienced. While the “fishbowl” of Hollywood celebrity is a thing constructed by and for such celebrities, I imagine that the cost of it all can be high. The pictures suggest that Jenner has what I consider to be a limiting and limited vision of beauty, but she’s sure not alone in that, and she lives surrounded by that kind of imagery. It would be really remarkable if she could escape it. Maybe she’s just not remarkable in that way (though is remarkable in others).


    • Maybe she’s just not remarkable in that way (though is remarkable in others).

      I think you’re probably right, Truffula. And after a year in L.A. County, I can say that Jenner’s world is a world that even most people in Southern CA have never experienced. Most people here have lives that don’t fit the Hollywood/celebrity projection at all.


  4. Thanks for sharing this review Historiann, I really liked it, especially the way he felt free to point to the other alternatives offered by Catherine Opie and Judith Butler. I don’t think you would see that move made in the Sacramento Bee or the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The LA Times is still a classy and mostly cerebral operation.

    Certainly, Knight makes a great argument for why Jenner and Leibovitz choose to represent Caitlyn’s transition in a fairly traditional, dare I say conservative style. While both of them might be women who first tried to figure out their gender roles in the 1960s, I think that there is more history to it than that.

    Caitlyn Jenner’s portraits by Annie Leibovitz owe at least as much to the 1860s as they do to the 1960s. The rules for portrait photography were hammered out by Nadar, Niepce, and Julia Margaret Cameron in the middle of the nineteenth century. These photographers, along with a host of anonymous commercial photographers, developed a set of poses, camera angles, gazes, and framings that conveyed the importance, dignity, and individuality of their bourgeois clientele. Those conventions still inform us of what makes a “pretty picture” today. The rules for what makes a pretty picture have remained with us even into the age of the iPhone, the selfy, and photoshop. Change the wardrobe and voila, Caitlyn Jenner could be transported back to Cameron’s studio 1866.


    • Thanks, Matt–I had no idea!

      Yes, the LAT is something I’ll really miss, but there are only so many hours in the day and I just can’t handle reading more than one paper. (And I refuse to read newspapers on a screen. Blech.)


  5. I didn’t think about that when I saw that picture, and now I feel stupid for not having noticed it.

    People need to do what they need to do, but it does seem sad that society is so gender-stratified that people need to…change their body in order to be a different person?

    But it’s something I don’t know about, so I respect those decisions.


    • Here’s an alternative view by psychiatrist Paul McHugh. Bear in mind that this is published in the Wall Street Journal, and so there is the usual conservative bloviation about people “demanding” government funding for sex reassignment surgeries. But he presents some interesting data comparing children and adults who were treated and those who were not treated medically and surgically, and there is a case to be made for non-intervention according to this data.

      What I find amazing is the absence of any feminist criticism of the notion that medical and surgical treatment is anything but a liberation for people struggling with gender identity issues. That is, I’m pretty sure that feminists still feel emboldened to critique plastic surgery interventions like breast implants, rhinoplasty, and facelifts. There’s a long and respected intellectual history of feminists criticizing the social and cultural expectations for youth and beauty heaped on women, and yet silence when it comes to the radical surgical and hormonal alteration of healthy bodies that trans people seek.


      • I’ve been thinking the same thing. (Of course, Nora Ephron apparently got there before either of us.) Basically, transgender women like Jenner seem attached to a particular model of glamorous mid-century femininity, which I have always thought of as accepted drag for half the population. It is impossible for me to view this as an entirely biological drive. For the sake of comparison: I have yet to hear of a white person saying that they always felt black inside and are finally dying their skin to fulfill their deepest sense of self. Nor have I heard of a dark-skinned person feeling “white” inside, as if that was their true identity. Plenty of dark-skinned people seek to lighten their skin, for reasons that seem entirely understandable at a cultural level. What is it about gender that makes people think it’s all biological?


      • Replying to VL’s point, ” What is it about gender that makes people think it’s all biological?”

        Maybe it’s too easy an answer, but then it seems to me you don’t have to fight the gender stereotypes embedded in all of society and structuring every interaction. On one side is the choice to self-define and take on the work of making your own new world (and likely making yourself unemployable in the old one with all the money). On the other side, body modification and no threat to stereotypes.

        I think it’s probably the hugeness of the difficulties you’re letting yourself in for that makes so many people try to convince themselves gender is all biological so there’s no problem with our current setup.


      • And another thing: As a post menopausal (I know, yuck, right?) woman I get all kinds of paternalistic warnings and lectures about my ongoing use of bio identical hormones, but it’s okay for the transgendered to take them for decades without end?
        If there’s a world wide yam shortage, will these hormones be earmarked for the Caitlyns of the world, only? Apparently they suffer no ill effects-it’s magic!


      • Sweet Sue: this is a great point, and a wonderful example of the questions we don’t see asked or answered now about transpeople’s health, even by feminists (except you & me, and a few other people who don’t have major media platforms!)


  6. What is the etymology and evolution of the term “reassignment” in this process, anyway? It makes the person in question seem less like a decider than like someone who got an injunctive note to make an appointment and “come see the dean,” to put it in academic context? Just as I was leaving a department once upon a time a very senior person there announced that ze wasn’t going to be around the next year, because ze was going to do this. The rhetoric of the message didn’t make it sound like something that had come down from the board of governors, which “reassignment” sort of does in most contexts. Does this have more to do with how surgeons think and talk than anything else?


  7. I find it thoroughly depressing and disappointing the way the trans community has embraced the most tired gender stereotypes. Would we even recognize (literally, figuratively) Caitlyn as a transwoman without the boobs, makeup, and no doubt photoshop? Does she have to perform femininity to be a woman? Better to get rid of the stereotypes (bad for everyone, after all) than change our bodies to fit the stereotypes.

    And as for the missing feminist critique … indeed. But who wants to criticize a marginalized group, even if they are reinforcing cliches that we have fought against for *years.*


    • Agreed. No one wants to beat up on a disparaged minority like the trans community, certainly not feminists. But I think it’s possible to question the rhetoric and the invasive medical and surgical protocols without personalizing the critique or attacking people who have chosen to transition either medically or surgically. The fact of the matter is that it’s the rigid gender binary that makes people feel like medical and surgical transitioning are the only tools they have to address their issue.


  8. There is a huge range in the trans community, and I know that not all adopt traditional gender roles. But what strikes me is that often this feeling that “I’m really this other sex” plays into the most rigid gender constructions, often in ways that cis women rarely do. (I have a friend who reports that her trans sister always matches her handbag and her shoes!) That reflects what Nora Ephron had to say about Jan Morris — I remember thinking that when I read an interview with Morris back in the 70s: she wanted all the things feminists were challenging.

    I was really struck by this interview with Alison Bechdel, where she talks about why she’s glad she didn’t have the medical option when she was young:

    So while I am supportive of individuals, I have real questions about how the trans movement tends to reify or even ossify ideas about gender, and actually work against non-normative performances of gender.


    • Brillaint, Susan–thanks for the link to the Bechdel article. I must go read it immediately.

      Speaking of the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, more than one (butch) friend of mine has asked me: “so what’s happening to the dyke identity?” when so many baby dykes are getting top surgery and considering a full transition.


  9. I think this gets back to “choice feminism” — if some people feel really far on the feminine spectrum why can’t they be? Even in an ideal world where I can wear shorts without shaving my legs (and not get disapprobation), some people would choose to be more on the feminine end even without being forced. And she wouldn’t be on the cover of Vanity Fair if she wasn’t extreme. That’s not her fault, that’s the media. And even if gender were allowed to be more fluid, I do think that for some people having the “right” body is necessary; just like we shouldn’t expect everybody to be bisexual, some people really are only heterosexual or only homosexual.

    About two decades ago I went to a wonderful talk by Deirdre McCloskey talking about her transition and why she thought it was necessary. She is also extremely feminine (complete with purse dog), but I would not dream of pressuring her to be otherwise. She’s also a wonderful feminist– the talk I went to was specifically about her experiences as a woman and seeing sexism in our profession in a new light. (The most memorable part, she realized she’d been fully accepted the first time she said something in a meeting, was ignored, then a man said the same thing and everybody thought it was a great idea, “That got old quick.”)


    • It *does* go back to choice feminism, whereby “I’m a woman, I’ve made a choice which is feminist if I say it is.”

      It’s not necessarily anti-feminist to criticize the choices of other women, which is something that “choice feminists” don’t get.


      • It isn’t anti-feminist to criticize the criticism of women who make choices either, which is something “anti-choice feminists” apparently don’t get.

        Similar to the freedom of speech arguments– just because one verbally disagrees with attempts to shut down free speech (of marginalized groups) doesn’t mean one is violating free speech (of the majority).


      • Nicoleandmaggie, we agree. I wasn’t criticizing your defense of transwomen. I was pointing out that choice feminism is thin gruel as a philosophy.


    • Love it. My mother emailed me about this earlier today–couldn’t watch it at the Huntington & so had to wait until I got home!


  10. My take was that the photo was more about transgressing the notion of age and beauty, less about Jenner being trans. I interpreted it as playing off the notion that we are reaching a societal tipping point where it is “weirder” for someone old to be “hot” than it is for someone trans to be.


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