The Paradigm Lag: Why It's (Still) Awkward to Talk About Caitlyn Jenner
Cultural conventions, when it comes to talking about transgender people, haven’t caught up to cultural realities. That will change, and quickly.
This week, Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair. The reaction to this from the rest of the media was largely supportive. It was also, however, just a little bit awkward. The AP write-up of Jenner’s debut initially referred to Caitlyn as "Bruce" and as “he.” The Washington Post, in a similar vein, retracted a headline that referred to Jenner as “Bruce.” An analysis of the tweets about Jenner's Vanity Fair shoot announced that “people are generally using the correct gendered pronoun when mentioning Caitlyn’s official Twitter account,” finding that, in the first flurry of discussion, 1,179 tweeters used “she,” compared to 176 who used “he.” This was presented as good news—evidence, essentially, of the progress that’s been made when it comes to progress itself.
Which it was, sort of. Compare the response to Jenner's transformation to the reaction two years ago when Chelsea Manning’s attorney announced that Manning identified as a woman, and wished to be referred to with female pronouns. News organizations debated whether she should actually be referred to as “a woman” named “Chelsea,” and Manning ended up taking the matter to court, which ruled that she should be referred to, indeed, as a woman. What has been pretty much taken for granted in the conversation about Jenner is implied by the media reports’ quick corrections of their errors: the idea that Jenner herself should get to decide how she is identified by other people. The GLAAD guidelines that advise that one should “use the descriptive term preferred by the individual” have been adopted by mainstream news organizations. There’s a sense—as people struggle to show support using the right pronouns, the right adjectives, the right assumptions—that there are, in fact, correct terms to be used: “she,” not “he,” “woman,” not “man,” “Caitlyn,” not “Bruce.” These terms are correct because, as GLAAD says, they are preferred by the individual.
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We live in a fast-moving culture. Memes rise and fall in the space of days, and often hours; new words become cliched almost as instantly as they’re formed. And in the same way that long-held assumptions about language (“his or her”) get abandoned in favor of other approaches (“their”), so do cultural institutions. Only a few years ago, same-sex marriage was a pipe dream; now, it's on its way to normalization. Marijuana, until recently the stuff of black-market subculture, is quickly developing into a full-blown industry.
The shifts can feel, to those of us who are living within them, whiplashing. Cultural conventions haven’t yet caught up to cultural realities. Etiquette and language, the discursive products of quandaries that have been hashed out over time, can be slow to catch up with the fast-moving realities of the culture. And so, in an America that still often elides “sex” and “gender,” a bit of awkwardness when it comes to talking about Caitlyn Jenner is pretty much inevitable. The vocabulary is, to many people, unfamiliar. The lines between “transgender” and “transexual” are murky. People, generally, mean well; people are also, to a certain extent, confused. Culture is fast; convention is slow.
In Jenner’s case, what we're seeing, essentially, is a subculture—in this case, the trans community—becoming, gradually but also sort of suddenly, mainstream. The trans community, of course, already has set conventions and mores, precise words and phrases that are the product of dialogue and trial and error. The challenge is figuring out how those translate to the level of the mass culture, as paradigm shifts are shifting, suddenly, beneath our feet.
There’s something that happens in that shift, as convention catches up to culture. Call it a paradigm lag. It's the nebulousness that sets in, temporarily, as subcultures seep into the mass culture. It's the process of education and explanation that was on display, for example, in Jenner's recent interview with Diane Sawyer, which seemed aimed as much at educating the American public about transgenderism as it was about telling Jenner's particular story. It's the time required to figure out whether “transgender” or “transsexual” or “trans” is the appropriate adjective to describe a particular person. It's the learning curve of culture.
It’s the revealing imperative of the cover line of Jenner’s Vanity Fair issue: “Call Me Caitlyn.”
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In Jenner's case, much of the language that will be used to describe her comes from a similarly imperative place: There are guidelines that exist; it is up to people simply to follow them. The murkier aspects of legislation, though, will likely take place in the form of questions about the lines between appreciation and objectification when it comes to someone in Caitlyn’s position. How should we talk about Caitlyn’s new appearance—which she has fought for, and which is so much a part of her identity—without objectifying her? How do we avoid the kind of casual misogyny that is so deeply ingrained in our conversations about women’s bodies?
Again, the AP's write-up is instructive: “Bruce Jenner,” the news wire initially announced, “made his debut as a transgender woman in a va-va-voom fashion in the July issue of Vanity Fair.” So was that analysis of gender pronouns used to describe Caitlyn, which pointed to tweets that called her “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and “the hottest Jenner.” These were meant to be supportive; their effect, though, was also to suggest that now that Jenner is a woman, she is fair game for the stuff that women deal with: an obsession with their looks, objectification, support about their behavior expressed as support of their appearance.
On the other hand, though, Caitlyn's transformation is specifically about the transformation of her physical form. In choosing Vanity Fair as the publication to announce that transformation, Jenner was also making a statement: Vanity Fair is glamorous. It will get the fashion just right, the lighting just so. It has a way of turning people into art. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber pointed out, “a Vanity Fair cover story with Annie Leibovitz’s photos is at the same time an exercise in glamorization and humanization—making [Jenner’s] tale both more epic and more specific.”
The balance between the epic and the specific, when it comes to language and when it comes to deeper questions about objectification and respect, is now for the culture to figure out, collectively. And, if history is any guide, it will do that in fairly short order. The current awkwardness in the conversation about Caitlyn will subside; common language will emerge; norms will announce themselves. We’re just in a gray zone right now. We’re just catching up. As “Bruce,” Caitlyn Jenner was known for clearing hurdles. There's a moment, after the great leap is made, when the hurdler hovers in the air, detached from the track, seeming suspended over all that is solid. The ground, for that tense instant, is far away.
That's where we are right now: hovering, uncertain, suspended. But we’re moving forward, as quickly as we can. And soon, gravity being what it is, we'll land.