At first, you might not recognize the woman on the cover of the new Vanity Fair. I didn’t, for a second. The text certainly isn’t helpful—just one line, “Call me Caitlyn.” Who is Caitlyn? Then you really look at the face and realize it’s the person who the public has known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic medalist and Kardashian patriarch who recently came out as a woman.
This process of recognition is, of course, part of the point. Jenner is, for the first time in public, dressing herself in women’s clothes and going by a woman’s name. The explanation for why is inside Buzz Bissinger’s long profile of her, but the simplicity of the cover says that you aren’t owed an explanation. Many transgender people have spoken about the desire to be seen for who they are, not who they used to be. I always think about the lyrics to the title track on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the first album that Against Me! put out after singer Thomas James Gabel announced herself as Laura Jane Grace: “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress. You want them to see you like they see every other girl.”
For Jenner in particular, this is a difficult goal: Bruce was a celebrity for a long time, one who’s become only more famous since announcing herself a woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20. Like the reality-TV universe that so many people know her from, a Vanity Fair cover story with Annie Leibovitz’s photos is at the same time an exercise in glamorization and humanization—making her tale both more epic and more specific. Some people are complaining that she’s creating a spectacle, but it’s hard to see how it could be any other way, nor why that’s inherently a bad thing given the circumstances.