Note: Though Bruce Jenner has now identified as a woman, he has not yet elected to be identified under a new name or by female pronouns, so as a result, I’ve used male pronouns.
Even if some of Diane Sawyer’s questions to Bruce Jenner seemed banal to those already familiar with the facts that gender identity and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive or the notion that our rigid definitions of gender are damaging, the reality is the general public remains largely ignorant. We don’t talk about gender enough; we don’t talk about sexuality enough; we don’t acknowledge the complexity in either.
This is why television remains such a powerful medium in familiarizing the masses with issues foreign to them and why pop cultural icons like Jenner make for the perfect ambassadors. What Jenner did was powerful and when his reality series premieres this summer, he will be using his platform to make meaningful contributions.
These are all good things, and yet, some have since expressed that it’s not good enough. Over the weekend, I saw various people on my social media feeds try to challenge the notion that Jenner was “brave,” arguing instead that he’s “privileged.” I think it’s cute when people learn new terms and phrases and proceed to use and abuse them. It’s on trend.
You don’t quantify someone’s level or bravery. Having access and excess does not negate consequences with being vulnerable. At one point in his life, Jenner represented the height of masculinity, and in an interview he didn’t owe anyone, told the world that he privately loathed it because it’s not who he was. Saying that was brave.
Not only was he adamant about his story being just that, he took a minute to acknowledge the very marginalized groups often ignored — namely Black trans women. Bruce’s interview was about Bruce, but he decided to use that space to speak out for those who don’t command such level of celebrity.
Jenner elected to publicly discuss a deeply personal issue that has followed him throughout his life at a time when the issues of the trans community are only now being brought to the forefront – mostly thanks to the work of actress Laverne Cox, writer and television host Janet Mock, and collegiate athlete turned activist Kye Allums. Jenner’s interview with Sawyer now takes those efforts one-step further.
A celebrated Olympian and actor turned patriarch in a hugely popular reality TV show phenomenon, Jenner is in a unique position in that his generational appeal is varied, thus making his decision to reveal that he is a transgender woman all the more powerful. He didn’t owe us any of that, and while there is work to be done, let’s not taint this contribution.
Now, after that interview, we can take a story like Bruce’s and use it to bring greater attention to other groups. We can also hope the interview will challenge other trite views related to the trans community. Last week, Dr. Phil made a joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, noting, “You’re almost 80, what’s the point? This is a theoretical exercise, right? I don’t know. He’s kind of past prime for like… right?” It’s something Sawyer herself wondered, and frankly, I need everyone to quit thinking Jenner cannot still slay the scene in decade six. Do you folks not remember The Golden Girls or Eartha Kitt as Lady Eloise in Boomerang? Meanwhile, half of the trans population in the U.S. is over 50. Again, Jenner matters.
Then there is Wendy Williams, who during a segment on her talk show last week, challenged the timing of Jenner’s transition and conflating it with his teenage daughter Kylie Jenner dating 25-year-old rapper Tyga. In terms of parenting, Jenner’s second wife, Linda Thompson, has far more intel on that than Williams does. Still, even in her criticism of him as an absentee dad, she wrote about him on The Huffington Post fondly and was thoughtful in her acknowledgment of the inner strife Jenner carried for much of his life.
Jenner will likely face more scrutiny, but for all of the other people talking, it’ll be Bruce Jenner’s voice that resonates most — and whatever he chooses to say will help others learn something. I’m not sure the same can be said of his critics.