In April 2015, superstar athlete and reality TV celebrity Bruce Jenner came out to the world as Caitlyn Jenner in a highly publicized interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20. There had been much speculation in the media for years about whether Jenner was having cosmetic surgery and/or gender reassignment surgery. Rumors abounded that Jenner was “turning into a woman.” Paparazzi went to extreme lengths to try to get a photo of Jenner wearing make-up or nail polish or any other indicator that he might actually identify as a woman. A new hairstyle or a pony tail would make headline news. So when the ads announced an upcoming 20/20 interview in which Jenner would be sharing some big news, a record-breaking 20.7 million people tuned in. Caitlyn Jenner’s very public introduction to the world became one of the biggest pop culture happenings of 2015.
There have been other transgender celebrities. Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, for example, graced the cover of Time magazine last summer and was named 2014 “Woman of the Year” by Glamour. But she had already transitioned from male to female before the public got to know her. The world did know Larry Wachowski, director of the Matrix movies, before she became Lana Wachowski – but her transition was made quietly, and privately. The differences that elevate Jenner’s change in gender to one of the biggest media sensations of the year come from the nature of her pre-transition celebrity, the masterfully orchestrated manner in which she came out, and the public’s reaction.
Bruce Jenner originally gained fame by winning the 1976 Olympic Decathlon – a grueling physical challenge consisting of 10 track and field competitions ranging from running hurdles to javelin throwing and pole vaulting. The winner of the decathlon is traditionally granted the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.” It’s a manly contest for manly men. Women are not even allowed to compete. The 6’2” sports star became a huge national hero. A photo of Jenner from his world-record breaking Olympic run adorned the front of every Wheaties box; the cereal branded itself “the breakfast of champions.”
Post-Wheaties era Jenner remained a public figure. Jenner was the spokesperson for numerous companies like Tropicana and Minolta; was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and GQ; put out a number of exercise videos; and appeared in some movies and on TV. Since 2007, he appeared regularly – as Bruce – on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, an extremely popular reality television program in its 11th season. The show follows the lives of his blended family with his third wife, Kris Jenner, particularly focusing on his step-daughters Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé Kardashian. Whether it was as the guy from the cereal box or as Kim K’s dad, most Americans knew who Bruce Jenner was. That was the first ingredient in making the transition to Caitlyn such a notable popular culture event.
The next ingredient was quite deliberate on Jenner’s part: the well-planned whirlwind of publicity surrounding the transition. Following the 2-hour Special 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer came the famous “Call me Caitlyn” Vanity Fair cover. The interview inside told more of Jenner’s emotional story about finally expressing herself outside as she had always felt inside. The photos, though – beautifully crafted by the inveterately gifted Annie Liebovitz – were a nation-wide sensation. Not only was 65 year-old Caitlyn Jenner now a woman; she was gorgeous! After the Vanity Fair piece were more interviews and, finally, her own reality TV show, “I am Cait.” This show follows Jenner as she adapts to her new life living openly as a transgender woman. Added to that are the numerous awards and acknowledgements she has received, including winning the 2015 Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS; being named 2015 “Woman of the Year” by Glamour; being a runner up for TIME magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year;” and being Barbara Walters’ “Most Fascinating Person of 2015.” Everywhere you look, it’s Caitlyn.
Not all of society is pleased with the ubiquity of Caitlyn Jenner. Many, in fact, are quite hostile toward her and to the fact that the mainstream media is, by and large, respecting her identity as a woman and is using feminine pronouns when discussing her, etc. A certain segment of the population reviles her simply because they are uncomfortable with the notion of transgenderism or because of their religious or moral beliefs. Others don’t have a problem with transgender people in general, just with Jenner. For example, the widower of police officer Moira Smith, a 9/11 first responder who was honored posthumously in 2001, returned his wife’s “Woman of the Year” award to Glamour. Actress Rose McGowan wrote a scathing and now-viral indictment of Jenner on FaceBook following her “Woman of the Year” acceptance speech. The transgender community itself has some concerns about Jenner. The problem is that while it is great that Jenner is finally able to live her life authentically, having her body match her mind and heart, she has 65 years of wealthy, male white privilege behind her. She routinely makes gaffes or bad jokes like “the hardest part of being a woman is deciding what to wear.” She also clings to many conservative values that no longer fit her life – an only begrudging acceptance of marriage equality, for example. Many fear that in some ways, the self-appointed spokeswoman for the transgender community may be taking the movement for tolerance and equality one step forward and two steps back.
Whatever kind of spokeswoman Jenner is, she is one very much in the public eye. She has opened a discussion on the issues of the transgender community to a far larger audience than even Laverne Cox and Lana Wachowski – both brave and influential women in their own right – ever did. With more exposure to the struggles of those who do not share the affluence and privilege Jenner brought with her from her former life, perhaps she will become a more measured voice for tolerance and understanding. In the meantime, she has effectively made herself the most famous transgender person in history. And made her story one of the biggest that occurred in popular culture in 2015.