The Problem With Vanity Fair's Caitlyn Jenner Profile

Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover is a triumph, but is there a problem with the profile?

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Complex Original

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Yesterday, Caitlyn Jenner made her formal debut as the stunning cover girl of Vanity Fair’s July issue. On the cover, she's a glamorous, vulnerable transwoman in her 60s, visible to us now for the first time since her heartbreakingly raw coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer in April. At the end of that interview, she promised us a spectacular re-emergence. Now we have it.

Unfortunately, unlike the cover itself, the accompanying 22-page feature (which you can read now by subscribing to Vanity Fair or wait until it's officially released next week) is less a revelation than a retread of that April interview. Buzz Bissinger, a cis man and the author of the book Friday Night Lights, was chosen to write it. There would seem to be nothing wrong with this choice, except for something Bissinger says about fumbling Jenner’s pronouns during his interview with Jenner—a statement that one assumes was meant to be equal parts clarification and justification: "My miscues have nothing to do with intolerance—I have been a cross-dresser with a big time fetish for women’s leather." 

Not intolerance, maybe, but certainly ignorance. Cross-dressing happens to have nothing to do with the experience of being trans, and to lead with the assumption that it might—as Bissinger does—does not bode well for the story at large.

This vague feeling permeates the profile, and gives a sense of where Bissinger is coming from. The story, to his mind, is both “remarkable” and weird. To approach it, he must view its natural complexity through the sadly simplistic "before" and "after" mode of makeover parlance. 

"I spent hundreds of hours with the man over a period of three months," he writes. "Then I spent countless hours with the woman. It was initially weird, and virtually anyone who says it isn’t weird is giving themselves far too much credit."

The rest of the story is very much in this tone. There is the man, and the woman, and they stay neatly separate throughout. The character Bruce Jenner (“he”) must remain in the past, while Caitlyn (“she”) is the heroine of the present.

But the two people that the profile would have us see Jenner as are actually, and quite simply, one person. When we are talking about Jenner (as we have been and will for years to come) we are talking about one person, and it’s very important to keep that in mind. Because when we get too comfortable separating the two different versions of a life lived in one body, we begin to see transpeople as people who start out as a problem, and then become fixed.

When we begin to think of people in terms of only being able to be one thing, we defeat ourselves. At one point, Bissinger describes Jenner’s transition as being "complete." A human being can never completed, for we are always works in progress. For a person in transition, it’s only after beginning the process of moving toward the truth that the real story begins. It’s a beginning, not—as it is presented here—a glamorous end.

Since coming out, Jenner has consistently been honest and upfront about the complex duality that has defined her life. "I’m not doing this to be interesting," she says to Bissinger, in response to the accusations about her transition being a sort of Kardashian-fueled publicity stunt. "I’m doing this to live." But one can be interesting and live, and this is exactly what Jenner is choosing to do with her upcoming reality series, her Diane Sawyer interview, and her choice to come out on the cover of Vanity Fair, to emerge from the shadows into a beautiful, softly-lit spread looking as glamorous as Jean Harlow. 

It’s beautiful to see her that way, but it isn’t sensational, and it isn’t a shock—not unless you want to view it as such. When I watched the Diane Sawyer interview, it stunned me to see how Jenner, against footage of her younger self, had a certain visual continuity. She was always trying subtly in some way to present herself as a woman. "I tried to grow my hair out as long as I could," Jenner confessed to Bissinger, "without getting yelled at." So yes, Caitlyn has always existed—Bruce has just been the part of her that existed to other people.

Clearly, to some extent, this is still the case. In Bissinger’s coverage of the story, "Bruce" is well in evidence, as are the details of the pre-transition past, much of which was already covered in the Sawyer interview. It is Caitlyn as Caitlyn—rather than a sort of post-Bruce fantasy—who is missing from the Vanity Fair piece. She is seen beautifully photographed, but barely heard. Caitlyn exists, it would seem, to be looked at. Caitlyn is a woman, and what do women exist for in this culture—especially in the context of a fashion magazine—but to be passive and to looked at? If a picture is worth a thousand words, the maxim counts double in a high fashion magazine. 

It makes sense, then, that the story would take place so much in the past, when the present can be accounted for by a number of stunning images. And when Bissinger is not discussing "Bruce" and the past, he sets to work shifting equal parts blame and hope for the present for the sins of Bruce onto Caitlyn—the problematic years of parenting, the neglect, the lack of "moral responsibility" in evidence during the course of three troubled marriages. Will Caitlyn, Bissinger wonders, fix what was cold and unfeeling about Bruce? This is something the Jenner children wonder as well. As Caitlyn’s eldest son Burt puts it: "I have high hopes that Caitlyn is a better person than Bruce."

Jenner herself encourages this, of course—because she does think in terms of penitence, contrition. Bruce lied all the time, while Caitlyn "has no secrets." And she reached her pain threshold long ago, in terms of hurting herself and hurting other people. "Pain is kind of, for me, part of the pain for being me," she says. "This is what you get for being who you are. Just take the pain." But of course that’s not the point at all. The point is to become, at last, real. To start being able to look enough away from yourself and begin to notice how there are other people in the world, and that most of them are just as badly hurt as you’ve been.

Caitlyn may be more compassionate and honest, but she cannot be a better person—because she is not a different person. She is a version of someone else who lived a real life and made mistakes, as humans do. She is human and will continue to make mistakes, as humans do. But she owes us nothing, and to see her choices in terms of "moral responsibility" can only be insulting. It is we who owe her something. We owe her personhood, the thing so long denied to her. We need to honor her complexity by thinking of her not in the divisive terms of once-male, now-female.

But the Vanity Fair cover, as a statement, is a triumph. It makes the metaphor of change visible, if still in a limited way. It’s a hopeful message, and something that gets to the heart of the transgender movement and its effect on the culture at large, as the beginning of a widespread cultural realization that we don’t have to live inside the narrow crawlspace of the identities we are born into. We have choice, we have certain freedoms, whether constitutionally guaranteed or not. And the minute we start grabbing hold of them, we’re on the way to becoming ourselves. 

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

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