Caitlyn’s transition from Bruce Jenner is no doubt a significant milestone on the path to recognition of the trans community. I struggle to think of a time when trans people were so visibly in the media spotlight, saturating popular culture, or generating such a volume of positive commentary.
I’m a straight white male. My opinions about Caitlyn’s transition are entirely immaterial. Paul Barry is also — I assume, perhaps incorrectly — a straight white male. His opinions about Caitlyn’s transition are also immaterial. But things got weird when he tweeted:[tweet https://twitter.com/TheRealPBarry/status/605889848197521409]
I am no fan of Paul Barry. Media Watch was bad under Jonathan Holmes and got decidedly worse under Barry. I’m certainly not a fan of Sharri Markson, but here I am on the same side of the ‘I ordinarily think Barry is terrible but this time he might have a point’ argument:[tweet https://twitter.com/SharriMarkson/status/605902024173953025]
It’s always dangerous to be on the same side of a discussion as Sharri Markson, so let’s see if I can’t elucidate the position without resorting to the transphobia that critics of Barry (rightly) fear.
One of the major criticisms of the news is its focus on trivial celebrity stories. I had no idea who Caitlyn was before she transitioned but, suddenly, I had to care about the Kardashian television series. My newsfeeds were saturated with stories about her journey, her surgery, and her photoshoot.
And here’s where the tension is. For the trans community, they’re finally in the spotlight and this is a big deal. If that means my newsfeeds are filled with celebrity gossip, so be it. For the sake of a week or two, my privilege comes second. But that doesn’t mean people, like Barry — whose job it is to comment upon the state of the media — can’t draw attention to the fact that this whole story is celebrity gossip.
Let’s be really, really clear about this ‘story’. A wealthy, American elite was able to surgically modify themselves using a health system which bankrupts the critically ill. This is one of the most privileged people on Earth celebrating that they were able to use cosmetic surgery to look they way they wanted. This was a person who grew up the beneficiary of male privilege (their wealth, fame, &c., all derives from that privilege) using cosmetic surgery to achieve an idealised female body, and then using the media system which is constantly (and rightly) criticised for normalising unhealthy ideals of female bodies to celebrate the aforementioned surgery.
And the criticism leveled against Barry was that he used the ‘wrong’ name and pronoun to discuss Caitlyn, as if there was an authentic gender which Caitlyn has now achieved through cosmetic surgery.
I’m not a TERF by any stretch of the imagination. We have the technology: use it to look however you want. One of my longstanding criticisms of the makeup industry is that we have given women the technology to have extreme levels of control over their appearance, and yet we shame them into using this technology to look as identical to each other as possible. Here we are with a case of gender reassignment, and Caitlyn wanted extremely large breasts and to model for a magazine cover: it’s not really breaking down social norms about gender.
The puzzle is whether in order to demonstrate that we’re not transphobic or TERFs or whatever, we need to buy into the celebrity culture that we think is toxic, and ignore the really difficult aspects of celebrating the behaviours of the wealthy elite. This is a common predicament: when do we adopt beliefs simply because we don’t want to appear to be supporting ‘wrong’ beliefs?
If we’re really going to say that gender doesn’t matter (which I think is problematic for a host of reasons, but it’s a common slogan), then it doesn’t matter what gendered pronoun or name Barry used to refer to the individual who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner. If we’re really going to say that the media should focus on substantive news and not the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, then we can’t get that upset when Barry asks why the news is saturated with a celebrity story — even if we think that the story might have some good social consequences around trans acceptance.
But then I’m not trans. Maybe these pronouns and names mean more to them than any cis-gendered person could ever understand. Maybe the thought of being referred to by male pronouns is so insulting to them that we create an exception to our ‘gender doesn’t define us’ slogan. But then we’re still not at the stage where heaping shit on Paul Barry is justified. We’re justified for a whole lot of other reasons, but not this.