Jill Soloway and Caitlyn Jenner

On Jill Soloway, Caitlyn Jenner, and the trans representation the media wants

A number of articles critiquing comments Caitlyn Jenner has made about trans people have been published recently. An all too familiar pattern of media representation of trans women is playing out on a more high profile stage than usual: a privileged and newly out white trans woman is propped up as a spokesperson by cisgender people who like what she has to say, since she has yet to unlearn a cis centric worldview, and is then torn down when she inevitably makes wrong and offensive comments, becoming a scapegoat. Meanwhile, a recent interview with Transparent creator Jill Soloway features a number of transphobic comments, but they have not been called out in the press. While Jenner is critiqued, cis people in media get away with spewing thinly veiled transphobia and even – as in Soloway’s case – get held up as representatives for the trans community.

Caitlyn Jenner called out

A number of articles have published recently highlighting ignorant statements Caitlyn Jenner has made about trans people in recent interviews. On Dec 10 at Cosmopolitan, male author and editor Alex Rees called out as transphobic Jenner’s comments in a TIME interview saying that, “if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable. So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well.” Rees critiqued these comments for stereotyping and and scapegoating trans women who don’t pass and can’t afford the medical interventions Jenner can. This take on the interview was widely circulated and repeated in other articles, leading to a clarifying apology from Jenner. On Dec 12 the Advocate published an article calling out Jenner’s comments in a low profile interview at the UN that trans people in the US have it relatively well off: “If you look at issues on a worldwide basis, I’m pretty comfortable with the issues here in the United States.”

I have heard newly out trans women like Jenner make the same comment about presentation. When talking with other trans women about the pressures of presenting in a way that’s acceptable to the cis gaze, there would be nothing wrong these these comments. Jenner does have a lot of pressure on her to “pass,” as she came out in the public eye, has the kind of the celebrity that means constantly being photographed, and because she set herself up and has been accepted by the media as a trans spokesperson. And it is true that many people won’t respect trans women who don’t pass and aren’t as put together as humanly possible. As Meredith Talusan points out, the original interview contextualizes Jenner’s comments in a way that make it clear this is what she was trying to address. The critique of Jenner’s comments follows a familiar pattern: trans women are disrespected and treated terribly when they don’t pass, but if they do pass they’re called out for upholding the gender binary and cis standards of beauty. It is an impossible bind.

But this narrative has different meaning playing out this publicly in the media and involving a rich white trans woman. In this context, with this quote highlighted in articles, a privileged trans woman who can afford to present the way she wants is telling trans women without that luxury that they make cis people uncomfortable, and even further, letting cis people off the hook for treating women who don’t pass terribly. Which is absolutely not OK, and is also exactly the kind of messaging mistake that I would expect from a newly out trans woman, even one with as much media savvy as Jenner.

The trans spokesperson cis media wants

Caitlyn Jenner is in many ways exactly the trans woman spokesperson cis people want, and her acceptance and subsequent critique by the media follows a familiar pattern, just at a higher profile than it often plays out. Media loves newly out spokespeople who will say what a non-trans audience wants to hear – or even parrot their bigotry – because they are still seeking cis approval and have yet to unlearn a worldview that centers cis opinions and experiences. Newly out trans women are experts on their own experiences, to be sure, but it takes time to learn about actively living in the world as a trans woman. I am intimately familiar with this pattern as it is how I got a media platform in the first place as I was newly out, not saying much to challenge a cis-centric worldview, and much less knowledgeable about issues facing people like me, which endeared me to editors and publishers and also left me open to sometimes vicious critique. And I have watched this pattern play out with a number of other newly out, almost exclusively white trans women.

Jenner is also white and incredibly wealthy, which insulates her from many of the hardships other trans women face. There are staggeringly high rates of poverty among trans women who often struggle to find food and somewhere to sleep at night, let alone the medical care and high fashion Jenner can afford. Trans women of color are facing a global epidemic of violence, with the most murders ever recorded in the US in 2015. This is the context in which Jenner says she is “pretty comfortable with the issues here in the United States,” most of which she will never have to face. It is how she is able to decry that “nearly 25% of the women in high-end sex business are reportedly trans women” as a sign of oppression, as she did when she came out. She is far removed from the reality of staggering employment discrimination trans women face that makes sex work one of the few jobs open to them – though most are struggling in poverty, and would be so lucky to be on the high-end side of the business.

Unlike Laverne Cox, who came up in trans community, is deeply knowledgeable about the struggles trans women face and can speak to them powerfully, Jenner’s own experience is far removed from these realities, and thus more appealing to media that loves tokenizing trans women for views and hits and is less interested in addressing oppression. This is part of why writers and advocates, including myself, expressed concern about the media focus on Jenner before she even came out, which served as a distraction from very real, literal life and death issues that need to be addressed. Cox is expert at pivoting from typical celebrity talk to real world issues. Jenner is much less experienced with this, is much less connected to and knowledgeable about the realities facing the most marginalized trans women, and much more likely to try to appease cis interviewers instead of standing up for herself, which Cox has the immense experience to be able to do. And while she may try to highlight some of these issues on her unpopular reality show, her celebrity is ultimately about holding up a model of success that is rich, white, passable, and lets people get away with laughing at her – and by extension other women – for being trans.

Jenner is also the ideal spokesperson to fall into the tropes the media wants because, as part of the Kardashian media empire, her celebrity was always already set up to be about presentation. Looks matter a great deal in Jenner’s world, and she was already positioned to be looked at, to be evaluated for her ability to not just “pass” as a woman but aim for extreme beauty standards.

Just as the media loves propping up a spokesperson like Jenner to generate hits and say what they want her to say, they also love tearing trans women down. There are critiques of Jenner coming from trans women of color that are about much more relevant issues than her comments about presentation, and I am in no way saying she is above critique. Her calling out was also inevitable, as a newly out, incredibly privileged celebrity was always bound to make these errors. And the eagerness with which callouts of Jenner are published by cis authors or editors shows exactly what she was set up for from jump. This is underscored by the fact that cis critics don’t go get their own people, overlooking transphobic comments from cis folks like Jill Soloway who are also positioned as spokespeople.

Jill Soloway, Ariel Levy, Eileen Myles, and retro transphobia

In many ways, Transparent creator and executive producer Jill Soloway is exactly the cis person the media wants “representing” trans women (“Before there was Caitlyn Jenner there was Jill Soloway and Transparent,” declares the headline of a problematic Vogue article, erasing generations of spokespeople who are actually trans). To my mind, Transparent is clearly written from and for a cis perspective, casting Jeffrey Tambor as a caricature of Soloway’s own trans parent in a narrative about how hard it is to have to deal with a trans person in your life. Then Soloway and Tambor win awards and thank the trans community for letting them represent them, and the show is seen as positive in a context where any representation or visibility is seen as a good thing, even if what’s visible isn’t the reality of trans women at all.

Soloway has already had a public brush with transphobia. Over a year ago she shared an offensive meme about Jenner before Caitlyn had even come out, but this does not seem to disqualify her from representing trans women. It seems unlikely her comments in a recent interview – heavily linked as they are to a legacy of transphobic “feminist” thought – will disqualify her either.

As the second season of Transparent receives press coverage everywhere praising a show starring a cis man and created by a cis woman for representing trans women, the New Yorker published a profile of Soloway in their December 14 edition (which published online earlier) that reeks of transphobia. The piece is by Ariel Levy, whose previous work, including Female Chauvinist Pigs and her article Where the Bois Are, has been critiqued for showing the author’s transphobia. The profile of Soloway continues this trend.

Soloway’s quotes as deployed by Levy are peppered with ideas straight out of trans exclusionary feminist theory. So-called feminists whose politics have done real harm in the world scapegoat trans women as representatives of patriarchy and not really women. Soloway’s essentialist thinking is revealed early on when she positions the vagina as the site of gendered oppression and the penis as the tool of the patriarchy: “Because you have a pussy! To me, that is what’s underneath all this gender trouble: most of our laws are being formed by people with penises.” This is classic transmisogynistic rhetoric, essentializing the patriarchy down to body parts, which positions trans women as agents of patriarchy simply because of their genitals, instead of some of its most vulnerable and oppressed victims.

Later on in the article, Levy challenges the singular pronoun “they” and suggests that in Soloway’s utopia there would be no need for transition, an all too common argument used to delegitimize trans identities. Soloway pushes back: “In a few years, we’re going to look back and say, ‘When we were little, we used to think that all women had vaginas and all men had penises, but now, of course, we know that’s not true.’” This suggests the implications of Soloway’s initial comments about pussies and penises may not reflect her intent. Yet the first quote is prominently featured without direct clarification. And it is certainly an odd statement for someone positioned as a spokesperson for trans issues, though not surprising coming from a cis person who has to think very deliberately about not essentializing gender down to genitals. And while it is very possible given Levy’s biases that Soloway’s intent was not to undermine trans people’s identities, what is particularly important here is that Jenner did not get this sort of benefit of the doubt from Rees and others – indeed, her much clearer clarifying statements were ignored.

Soloway talks in the article about there not being screenwriters with a “trans-feminine perspective” for her to hire at Transparent. Articles have been published praising Soloway’s comments about vetting a number of trans woman writers as challenging the widespread tokenization of marginalized voices in Hollywood. Which is odd, as I know a number of incredibly talented trans women with powerful voices who Soloway vetted (and I can even think of a trans woman screenwriter off the top of my head). Yet Soloway hired only one, putting Our Lady J in the difficult position of representing all trans women on the writing staff of a show ostensibly about a trans woman. Now Soloway can point to her to say trans women’s voices are represented despite having only one trans writer who does not control the show’s story or perspective.

The article has been cited a number of times throughout the press, including at Cosmopolitan, because it features Soloway coming out about her relationship with author Eileen Myles. What has not been covered are Myle’s comments that are also full of thinly veiled swipes at trans people as upholders of traditional oppressive gender roles and comments undermining trans people’s need to exist. Levy quotes Myles describing herself as “recoiling” when hearing a normatively presenting trans man refer to his “lovely wife, “because [of] that traditionalist take on gender—which I’ve heard from trans women as well as trans men.” Myles comments are used to blame trans people for upholding the traditional gender binary, despite the fact that they face extreme oppression and violence because they are seen to fall outside traditional notions  of gender. This is followed by Myles’ comment about not needing to transition to living as a trans man and being “the gender Eileen.” Myles can certainly identify any way she wants, but the positioning of these comments makes them fall into a long transphobic feminist tradition of questioning the need to transition. And these sorts of comments are too often celebrated in the media without clarification – as in the case of Ruby Rose, for example – in a way that contributes to delegitimizing other’s need to transition.

Indeed, much of what makes this article so offensive comes down to Levy’s already clear biases, though Soloway and Myles give her plenty of fodder. Levy seems to position herself with Myles in implicitly questioning the need to transition and envisioning a gender-free future. Levy is certainly not the only journalist to repeatedly get away with publishing transphobia in the guise of objective journalism. Michelle Golberg published an article on December 9 at Slate that continues her pattern of digging in places like Tumblr to find voices that will support her view of trans activism as oppressing feminists. Golberg’s anti-trans bias is well documented – indeed, I wrote about it when she published something similar in the New Yorker last year (notice how the same publishers come up again and again). Yet Goldberg is able to continue publishing these articles, repeatedly getting pieces past editors that treat comments on a personal tumblr as news.

As of this writing, Levy’s article and Soloway and Myles’ comments have not been called out elsewhere in the press for their transphobia. While Soloway’s coming out has been written about widely, her vetting of trans woman writers praised, and season two of Transparent continues to be covered as a mainstream representation of trans women, the serious problems with these comments from the primary voice behind the show is ignored, or invisible to a cis audience not versed in this rhetoric.

Media gatekeepers and the limits to trans discourse

Trans people are not a monolith. Just like Caitlyn Jenner does not speak for all trans people, neither do I. I recognize, for example, that some trans people celebrate Transparent as a positive addition to media that’s increasing visibility, while others call it out for a number of failures. If there is really a “trans tipping point” it should mean trans people don’t have to present a monolithic worldview and experience. But when the voices included in media and the ways they’re positioned and framed predominantly perpetuate cis-centered, class and race-privileged viewpoints, it is impossible for this discourse to happen.

Cisgender gatekeepers – heads of media companies, publishers, editors, writers – still control what stories and ideas about trans people make it into the mainstream. Indeed, I originally wrote this article for another publication, briefly forgetting despite the subject matter that “the trans tipping point” hasn’t changed the fact that it’s simply not fair to give a piece like this to a cis editor without the knowledge base to work on it (and frankly, the only cis editors I know who are equipped to work on trans-related pieces that aren’t regurgitating existing narratives are here at Feministing).

It makes sense in this context that the spokesperson media latches onto is a newly out, incredibly privileged woman who declared herself a community representative from jump, who presents no real challenge to the status quo, and who is perfectly set up to fail so she can become the scapegoat for transphobia. It makes sense that media uses her comments to simplistically reify problems like the impossible bind trans women face around passing, because of course authors and editors are uninformed about these issues. It also makes sense that the fictional representation of trans women that finds success comes from a creator who is not trans and who even expresses transphobic views, and that this show reinforces the notion that trans women are hardships in cis people’s lives instead of centering and humanizing actual trans women. And it is completely unsurprising that press misses or ignores Soloway’s transphobic comments while praising her for representation.

While these patterns are, dare I say it, transparent to observers of the ways feminist thought and media narratives have been weaponized against trans women, it’s not surprising they are missed by a general audience. After all, there are very different audiences coming at these conversations with very different bases of knowledge and experience to work from. So transphobic ideas can continue to be advanced and trans women can continue to be scapegoated for transphobia, all in a media play for a cis audience.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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