The Bruce Jenner Learning Curve

The former Olympian's announcement that he's transgender is educating people about prejudice in real time—including the actress Alice Eve.

Danny Moloshok / AP

Bruce Jenner’s 20/20 interview about being a transgender woman has prompted all kinds of different reactions, but from people in the entertainment industry, the public response has in general been positive. The Kardashians have each voiced support for the person whom they’d come to know as the family patriarch, and many other blue-checkmarked Twitter users have expressed admiration for the difficult announcement the former Olympian made.

But yesterday, the actress Alice Eve, of Entourage and Star Trek: Into Darkness fame, had some not-so-supportive things to say. Referring to Jenner on Instagram, she wrote,

Nope. If you were a woman no one would have heard of you because women can’t compete in the decathlon. You wouldn’t be a hero. You would be a frustrated young athlete who wasn’t given a chance … Until women are paid the same as men, then playing at being a ‘woman’ while retaining the benefits of being a man is unfair. Do you have a vagina? Are you paid less than men? Then, my friend, you are a woman.

At first, it might seem as if Eve was outing herself as part of the “radfem”—"radical feminist"—community, whose controversial philosophy portraying transgender people as interlopers was traced last year by Michelle Goldberg in The New Yorker. But Eve’s comments apparently weren’t so thought through, and soon she began walking back the idea that people like Jenner don't get to define who they are. Instagram followers began calling Eve out—"Your notion that Jenner is 'playing' at being a woman is honestly disgusting," "This is transphobia at its finest"—and in the comments, Eve responded: “"I do agree that the struggle for transgenders is unique and horrific. However, I do want to also support a cause I strongly believe in, the right for women to have equal rights to men. The transgender equality struggle is the next one, as we all know. And very real it is, too."

This, too, was not a fully baked opinion. How does accepting Jenner set back women’s equality? Who decides which struggle is "next" versus which one is "now"? She followed up by posting pictures of the Harnaam Kaur, the British “bearded lady” and body-confidence activist, and of David Bowie, that icon for ambiguity. Neither of those people say they are transgender, and when Eve wrote “I am a supporter of anyone who wishes to explore their gender identity” on the Bowie picture, she still seemed to be missing the point: When Jenner goes on national TV and says “I am a woman," he’s not “exploring”—he’s explaining.

She deleted her initial post and replied to one of the many commenters criticizing her by saying she just wants to “refine the language on this topic”—despite the fact that there's already a vigorously debated set of terms to use on this topic, and that her end goal still seems to be defining Jenner outside of the term "woman." But more significantly, she said this:

Maybe this needs a little thought. Thank you for engaging with me on this subject, because I felt confused and now I feel enlightened and like I know what education I need to move forward. I appreciate the time and thought. #smartbunch

Is this, maybe, what a happy ending looks like for one of those Internet outrage cycles that are so fashionable to bemoan lately? Eve said something uninformed and hurtful to many people, and those people told her why they took issue with it. She still hasn't hit upon a particularly coherent point of view, but she is, in public, evolving, learning, and listening. Should she have done some research before making an inflammatory statement about a topic on which no one asked her opinion? Of course. But this is what the Internet does—it allows people to speak their minds, but it also holds them accountable for what they say.

And this is what something like the Jenner interview does: As the most visible and famous transgender “coming out” moment in American history, it's forced many people to think about a struggle that they hadn't considered before. The conversations that ensue are likely to be awkward, but they're also likely to be productive. “What I'm doing is going to do some good,” Jenner told Sawyer when she asked why he chose to go public. In her roundabout, foot-in-mouth way, Eve has just proved him right—for people who are both movie stars and not, it's time for an education.