How Bruce Jenner Became the Hero of His Own Fairy Tale

The problem with living a public life is you can’t just come out; you have to stand for coming out.

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During the much-anticipated 20/20 Bruce Jenner interview that aired on Friday, there didn’t seem to be a moment where Jenner wasn’t crying. His tears started seemingly the moment the interview began as Jenner tried his best to answer Diane Sawyer’s characteristically blunt opening question.

“Are you a woman?” she asked.

The answer is yes. And we’ve all sort of known it. But now we’re finally hearing it from Jenner.

But it’s not a coming out in the formal sense. Jenner's identity crisis is what the interview is really about. Jenner does the interview as "he," Bruce Jenner. But "Bruce Jenner" is a reference—discussed in air quotes throughout. He is someone Jenner no longer sees himself as. "Bruce Jenner" is a character he has played. When Jenner talks about himself, he talks about a future person who has yet to be born, a person only vaguely summarized as "she."

“Bruce lives a lie,” Jenner says. “'She' is not a lie.”

But they must share one body, unfortunately, and have been doing so for far too long.

“I hate the word 'guy stuck in a girl's body,'” Jenner said when pressed by Sawyer to explain.

“Why?” Sawyer asked.

“Because I’m me. I’m a person. This is who I am."

The space between "he" and "she" is what we’re seeing on the raw canvas of Jenner’s face. It was the source of his tears throughout, the symbolic removal of his ponytail for 17 million viewers.

For most transpeople, what Jenner and Sawyer were discussing was basic and familiar territory. But the interview wasn’t really for us, just as it wasn’t really for Bruce Jenner, even though it was about him. It was for the 16.8 million others (possibly more) that actually sat down and watched it, and maybe learned something important. The people who needed Bruce Jenner to tell them about the phenomenon of gender dysphoria.

That’s the problem with living a public life. You can’t just come out. You have to stand for coming out. So Jenner has now become a symbol, a metaphor without being able to help it.

But he’s not a metaphor; he’s a human being. And having to be both is probably very difficult. But that’s where we’re at in this country, and that’s what it takes for most Americans to get it. Celebrities still need to cry on camera and educate and stand for things, age old concepts. Bravery. Strength. Patriotism. Heroism.

The interview was important precisely because it does mark a turning point. It was raw; it was painful. It was something that you couldn’t feel nothing about. It enlisted your emotions, your gut reaction. And it forced you, as a viewer, to figure out which side of the interview you’re really on. Which of the two expressions matches your own the most closely? Jenner’s openness, his willingness to cry at any moment, or Sawyer’s confused expression, a messy pancake of disbelief.

That’s really the breakdown, and it’s the only clear breakdown there is at this point in the history of the trans movement. You either get it—are born getting it—or you don’t. The rest is education, much of it emotional, compulsory.

This despite the fact that the double life, the false identity, the tragedy of fulfilled aspiration, is our story and always has been. It’s Gatsby. It’s reality TV. It’s Instagram. It’s even the source of Kardashian fame, that famous-for-nothing fame. It’s branding, that deceptively ancient phenomenon. As an American, you have to decide what your public face is, your work persona, your "brand," and then after it's solidified you can spend the rest of your life trying to be authentic. It’s a balance, and most of us are failing at it. Being trans has become a sort of metaphor for that. How to be both public and private, and true to both identities. How to be "whole," to be "one." Can it be done?

But Jenner’s brand was "sports hero," and this complicates things. For so long he was the perfect example a certain type of manhood that can no longer exist, and never really existed to begin with.

That’s what’s most valuable about Jenner’s decision to come out publicly. It’s about what heroism looks like now to us—the new changing shape of the hero. It’s not a fixed image of strength and masculine physical purity, it’s no longer about going to war and winning. It’s about a single person deciding to give up a certain privilege for something more important, more valuable. Strength is no longer muscle. Strength is no longer lifting weights or running miles. Strength is standing still inside of a changing body and an antagonistic mind trying not to die. Who are our heroes today? Laverne Cox. Chelsea Manning. Bruce Jenner. She.

On top of it, Jenner’s story is one we don’t see often. He belongs to an older world. He is religious, and conservative. His transition is warring with so many other, traditional elements left over from the world he was born into.

“I was running away,” he says of his time training for the Olympics, and winning. Yes, running away, literally. And at the age of 26, he was done with that part of his life. Done with the literal action of running. The rest of his life had to become about something else—figuring out how possible it is to achieve something superhuman and still hate who you are. So he compartmentalized. Put on women’s dresses when he could, and walked around the house. Married, had children. Prayed to be "cured" by time. This is all standard, the earmarks of a life lived before the language was available, before even psychiatrists knew how to talk about it. The compartmentalization of "he," "Bruce Jenner," and the future self, "she," come from this.

But it’s all about to be done with. "She" is, for Jenner, still someone yet to exist. Someone who will have her true unveiling by degrees, and very publicly, in the year to come, with the new season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Jenner’s own documentary series about the transition. It’s still, for him, a process of being and becoming. He is announcing his intent to become, even though, in the most important and moving and beautiful ways, he already is.

The most important part, for someone of his generation, is the legitimacy of that becoming. The difference between "wanting to be" and "being," between "Do you want to be a woman?" and "Are you a woman?"

And now, as he turns the camera on himself, he will go from Bruce—that fictional entity, discussed in the third person—to "I." Myself. Insert female name here.

That’s the most important, and possibly the hardest step of all. It’s true that our generation is thought of as the "me" generation—self-obsessed, navel-gazing, hopelessly enthralled with our own personal history. It’s discussed in the media as if it’s a bad thing, a sign of laziness. But guess what? It’s actually harder to speak in the first person. To own yourself as "I." Some people still spend their entire lives just trying to get to a point where they can speak in that voice—to feel that there is a person that they can speak of, and be telling the truth about. So now we know the facts. We know now what we already knew, but now we know it in the first person. With any luck we’ll find it in ourselves to stop gawking or even laughing at it, and be moved by it. Because it’s quite beautiful, a kind of fairy tale.

“Do you dream as a woman?” Sawyer asked Jenner near the end.

“Yes I do.” He answered with certainty. “I always have.”

Henry Giardina is a writer living in Boston. His work has appeared in Original Plumbing, New York Times Book Review, The New, and the Paris Review Daily, among other publications. You can follow him here.

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