Thoughts on the Commodification of Trans* Women: Moving Towards Liberation over Liberalism

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Image From Flickr

By Shannon Kane

One of the most important questions that arises from digesting the myriad responses to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover is how do we, as leftist young adults, become better allies to the Trans* community without falling into the trap of commodifying Trans* individuals as badges of our own liberalism?

As a white cisgendered woman, the question of allyship is something I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. I would argue that negotiating our own privileges within advocacy and activism is not only important but mandatory if we are to work for social justice without causing more harm than good.

This is complicated work. It’s messy and can often hurt, but it must be done.

It seems like everyone has something to say about Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover, and while the hideously transphobic remarks made by conservative media outlets are hardly surprising, another, more insidious trend, has emerged. Swaths of social-media users have fawned over the image, repeatedly reinforcing how beautiful-sexy-gorgeous Caitlyn is. For the first time, many Americans who have never vocally supported the struggle for Trans* rights are aligning themselves with Ms. Jenner and her quest to live an authentic life. Even Rachel Maddow finally gave airtime to discuss a Trans-centric story when she congratulated Caitlyn last Monday, stating, “This is absolutely history, in the finest living sense today.” And it is an undeniably important historic moment for Trans* visibility. But as one response to Maddow’s segment pointed out:

“The trans community has lots of heroes… we don’t need to be told who is and isn’t our hero by someone who has very purposely ignored our community and issues for years. I support Ms. Jenner in her journey, but just because someone well known appears on a national magazine in slick photos doesn’t mean that’s the trans story to take precedence over all others.”

Which Trans* stories get to be shared, liked, and hashtagged? These sentiments echoed remarks made by actress and activist Laverne Cox, who wrote on her Tumblr recently:

“Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.”

(Full statement here)

Indeed, let’s take a stark look at the many issues facing the Trans* community. In 2013, more than half of LGBT homicide victims were Transgender Women of Color. In a national survey, 41% of respondents who identified as Transgender admitted to having attempted suicide in comparison to 1.6% of cisgendered respondents. Trans* individuals are also at a higher risk for homelessness and are frequently denied access to public housing based on their gender nonconformity. Members of the TWoC community are also subjected to arrests for “walking while trans” whereby law-enforcement profile Trans* women as sex workers and arrest them accordingly, often with as little evidence as having seen them talk to a passerby. Regardless of their guilt or innocence, activists like Janet Mock have spoken out against criminalizing women who engage in prostitution as a means for economic survival, especially given the fact that employers can fire individuals solely based on their gender identity in 32 states.

This is body terrorism, the deliberate or resultant inflicting of rhetorical or physical violence upon individuals because of the condition of their bodies.

And yet, in congratulating Caitlyn Jenner for making her authentic self visible, most people—including Rachel Maddow herself—have failed to adequately outline the institutional privilege granted to Jenner because of her race and class which has made her able to achieve this historic moment.

This isn’t to tear Caitlyn down, quite the opposite, in writing this article I aim to promote her own message. As Janet Mock pointed out, Caitlyn explicitly mentioned the grossly disproportionate amount of violence faced by Trans* WoC during her 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer. This message is missed by the vast majority of people quick to highlight Caitlyn’s physical transformation and feminine beauty. Cox notes that this praise is contingent upon an ability to fit into cisnormative beauty standards of ideal womanhood.

Her story becomes simplified and commodified—both by media outlets looking to increase viewership and by individuals across various social media platforms looking to posture themselves as progressive-minded allies on the “right side of history.”

But true allyship comes with the responsibility of uplifting the voices of marginalized groups, not propagating the objectification and commodification of certain highly visible members of that group. Squashing Jenner into a one-dimensional trope while ignoring her attempts to draw attention to the issues faced by the Transgender community does not qualify as allyship.

While the amount of support and approval Caitlyn has received is unprecedented, the commodification of her story and objectification of her body is nothing new. We can trace this trend back to Christine Jorgensen, an early recipient of sex reassignment surgery whose story first introduced transgenderism to the American public. In December of 1952, the New York Daily News proclaimed, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” Fast-forward sixty years and a Daily Mail article commemorated Jorgensen by anachronistically referring to her as a “glamourpuss” and “bombshell” rather than focusing on her advocacy and activism. While she was met with derision and condemnation from many sources, the mass media was fixated on her sex appeal. How is it that the depictions of Christine and Caitlyn, two entirely different women separated by more than half a century, could be so similar? When Christine first came out, she was greeted with invasive questions and invitations to appear naked at various universities.

Today, women in the Trans* community face a similar situation. Janet Mock has written and spoken about the entitlement cisgendered individuals often feel to ask about the most private and personal details of her life and her transition process. There is a clear pattern in modern American history of consuming the paltry few Trans* lives that make it into the public spotlight as if they are goods to be branded, traded, bought, and sold.

Women’s bodies are the ultimate commodity around which American capitalism revolves.

In response to pressure from the patriarchal system in which we are raised, women are taught to commodify ourselves and spend billions annually to maximize our value through any means possible—diet pills, designer clothes, hair dye, fake nails, high heels, tanning [or skin-lightening] lotions, lipstick, plastic surgery etc. We serve as trophy pieces for the men who try to woo and buy us by flaunting their material success. Women’s bodies are used as breathing mannequins on runways and magazine covers, rarely accompanied by our own thoughts and ideas.

This is the uncomfortable reality that Trans* women face if they choose to publicly transition, and they are well aware of it as Laverne Cox’s statements show. For Trans* women, public acceptance of one’s legitimacy as a human being can seemingly only be achieved through submission to the process of commodification. However, by willfully rejecting their male privilege and identity, Trans* women’s thoughts and stories are no longer taken seriously. As if being punished for rejecting masculinity, they become either the butt of tasteless jokes or the object of fetishism. Perhaps the media repeatedly emphasizes the sexiness of women like Caitlyn Jenner and Christine Jorgensen because they represent the ultimate female consumers—they had to buy their complete femininity. Meanwhile, the majority of Trans* women living below the poverty line who are unable to afford surgeries and hormone replacement therapies, and Trans* individuals who are uninterested in these procedures, are ignored because they serve no purpose in this system. Further, by neglecting to purchase access to full womanhood, they break the norms of a concretely binary gender system.

While the liberal mass media machine is busy lauding Jenner as a symbol of ideal commodified femininity, many of its followers tokenize her as an object heralding in a new era of Trans-friendly liberal multiculturalism. However, as the writers behind End Colonial Mentality deftly explained in a recent post,

“Liberalism is the dominant way of thinking about the world under capitalism and focuses on individuals. .”

The liberal model of multicultural celebration chooses to promote one-dimensional images of individuals who do little to upset the status quo. While Jenner’s photoshopped cover goes viral, Facebook actively censored and erased images of topless women demonstrating for liberation of Black cis and Trans* women in San Francisco on May 21st.

Caitlyn Jenner is allowed to be unapologetically femme and glamorous and take up as much space for herself as she wants, but as allies to her and the silenced voices of impoverished and ignored Trans* folks who most need our support, we have to strive to move beyond the commodification of that beauty. We have to do better.

If we want to talk about beautiful women in the Transgender community, let’s talk about women like Sylvia Rivera who was imprisoned, beaten, and raped, yet struggled tirelessly for Trans* liberation. Let’s talk about the unnamed women who started and participated in the Stonewall Riots. Let’s talk about the many Women of Color like CeCe McDonald and Angelica Ross currently using their status as prominent Trans* figures to advocate for tangible change and liberation instead of liberalism. While corporate media continually attempts to pretend Trans* women don’t have cultural and political agency separate of their sex appeal, this could not be further from the truth. Through social media spaces Trans* activists have created for themselves, a large and diverse body of thought and critical analysis has emerged.

As allies, it is our job to listen to these discussions and act (with humility) accordingly.

Shannon Kane is a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey. She currently lives and teaches in China.

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