This week, Jon Stewart castigated the media for responding to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fear reveal with commentary on the way news personalities were suddenly treating her like a woman, with widespread assessments of her “fuckability” and comments on her age. Stewart wasn’t wrong in the sense that some of the most immediate responses were incredibly sexist, but he missed the mark, because this isn’t about misogyny, but about transmisogyny, and the fact that transgender women are only socially acceptable if they can “pass” as sexually appealing cisgender women.
Dude, Caitlyn Jenner is hot.
— Adore Delano (@AdoreDelano) June 2, 2015
This is a moment in human history when all people need to come together and admit that #CaitlynJenner is kinda hot.
— David Wild (@Wildaboutmusic) June 1, 2015
I cant get over how hot @Caitlyn_Jenner looks in all these vanity fair photos!
— BigNLiddle (@bignliddle) June 1, 2015
Some of these responses even came from other women, underscoring the fact that women police each others’ beauty, too. For Caitlyn Jenner to win social acceptance, she didn’t just need to look sexually appealing to men; she also needed to convince women that she was one of them. In other words, she needed to pass—a term with incredibly complex and loaded social and political implications.
Oo wow @Caitlyn_Jenner looking hot like fire!! 😘
— Jacqueline Jossa (@jacquelineMjos) June 1, 2015
The media, and society in general, have difficulty relating to trans women. Either they’re stunning celebrities like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, or they’re among the largely nameless and faceless dead. People draw a clear divide when it comes to whether trans women can be accepted as “real women,” and that dividing line lies squarely across how they present themselves.
Passing privilege is similar to the privilege that cisgender people—that is, people who are not trans—enjoy, apart from one important distinction: It is conditional. It depends on conforming to a societal standard of gender presentation. It can be taken away. Essentially, passing privilege is a case of, ‘If you look a certain way, you don’t have to deal with all the bullshit that we hand out to other transgender people.’ It stinks. Passing may afford many privileges, but it is not a true freedom.
Stewart’s coy references to “transition” in a series of jokes to introduce each part of the segment only served to illustrate the fact that he was missing the point when it came to how people are reacting to Caitlyn Jenner. It’s not about how her transition means that she’s suddenly facing the same sexism and misogyny heaped upon cis women.
It’s about the fact that these comments reflect a fundamental view of trans women as inhuman unless they can pass—trans women must be glamorous, curvy, stunning, and very traditionally feminine—as though passing should be a goal for all trans women. Much has been made of the fact that Rob Kardashian initially didn’t recognize photos of Jenner from the shoot, repeating the idea that Jenner’s only an acceptable woman because she’s capable of deceiving her own family. She won: She passed.
At Buzzfeed, Meredith Talusan wrote:
Judging from her drastic shift in presentation for her Vanity Fair cover and her interview with Sawyer, it didn’t seem as though Jenner was comfortable being referred to as ‘Caitlyn’ and ‘her’ until she had achieved her own vision of what a woman should look like — one that conforms to conventional beauty standards steeped in patriarchal values that require enormous financial resources to build and maintain.
Transgender women are only perceived as successful if they can slip through society without attracting attention, and there’s a heavy demand for them to fit into very rigid definitions of traditional femininity and attractiveness. If they don’t meet those standards, they’re forever condemned to live the men in dresses stereotype, one that endangers transgender women by delving deep into the notion that trans women are threatening, out to prey upon cis men and women alike through deception and trickery.
That’s why trans women are at an incredibly high risk of experiencing sexual violence, assault, and murder. Suicide rates in the trans community are horrifically high. Transgender people are prime targets for discrimination, and many walk on eggshells throughout their lives, fearing outing and its consequences. Those who can be out and proud about their transness enjoy a considerable degree of social privilege: Jenner could be confident on the cover of Vanity Fair because of her social position.