OPINION: Caitlyn Jenner, conversation and competition
There is a line from Chimamanda Adichie's 'We should all be feminists' that resonates with some of the internet conversation after the release of Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover. Adichie says "We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men". This plays out in multiple ways, across different aspects and experiences of womanhood.
In many ways, women occupy environments of cultivated competition that overtly and subtly breathe through our personal and public lives - whether reflected in the perception of scarce jobs at the top of industries, work climates, the pursuit of a certain kind of beauty or in the way marriage is continually upheld as the ultimate accomplishment. Women are often pitted against each other in a constructed competition that we can also play into, champion and advance, since these ideas can touch and affect everything and everyone. Success, across the board, is often defined in narrow, pre-determined and patriarchal terms.
After the release of the Vanity Fair cover, memes immediately emerged that pitted Jenner against her ex-wife Kris Jenner and step-daughter Kim Kardashian - who had announced her pregnancy on the same day. It put them in 'direct competition' for attention, and used shame and respectability politics as its capital. Jenner was said to have 'broken' the internet in a way that Kim couldn't, with references to her controversial Complex magazine nude images, while Kris was deemed less beautiful. It was a familiar conversation that continually re-emerges when women and their bodies are at the centre of our dialogues.
Instead of centring the conversation around Jenner, transgender issues and politics, and human rights, it was reduced to attractiveness and attention, using the moment to engage in anti-women commentary and ideas of 'true heroism'.
Changing and complicating the narrative from one of 'competition' to 'recognition' of people's lives, daily realities and experiences is necessary. There is always room for thoughtful critique and meaningful analysis, whether it be of the way capitalism plays into and endorses this moment, how normative ideas of beauty and womanhood remain unchallenged, or the way privilege defines whose narratives get media attention.
The outgoing host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart used the moment to draw attention to the inequality, objectification, lack of gender parity, marginalisation and stereotypes that Jenner would now have to face. But these critiques are often made to co-exist with, or get shouted down by, ideas that are profoundly anti-women, in whatever ways women choose to define or frame their womanhood, and especially when they are outside the 'acceptable terms' of gender identity.
While we need to expand our conversations, to accommodate these critiques and let them breathe across our dialogues, public dialogues are often contracted and narrowed down to familiar terms that drench women in patriarchy and its terms of engagement.
These conversations are often underscored by the false idea that it is innate or natural for women to 'hate' each other - without looking at the environment that encourages, generates and forms this atmosphere of competition, and the patriarchal ideas to decide what women should embody, aspire to and define themselves around - rather than critiquing the gender norms that make these ideas both possible and pervasive.
Caitlyn Jenner's _Vanity Fair _cover exposed the dark underbelly of the internet, which is always visible, but sometimes appears dormant until an event occurs that centres around people who exist on the margins.
But it also inspired solidarity and education around transgender issues, and many important critiques. It was a moment that showed both how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go, as many shouted a collective, but qualified 'yassssssss' and used the moment to raise issues around violence against black transgender women, draw attention to power and privilege in transgender narratives and educate people how to speak about transgender issues in a way that honours self-determination, identity and experience.
In a candid, self-reflexive post on Tumblr, actress Laverne Cox wrote: "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". Steeped in politics, these narratives deserve our attention and activism - as stories on the peripheries rarely get told or centred in the media, and are often silenced by spectacle and capital.
If is often difficult to fully understand what it is like to live at a distance from what is deemed normal and acceptable: punctuated, hemmed-in and defined by how different you are from society's epicentre. In many instances, it demands that we listen and let people speak their truth, narrate their own experience, be an ally in their struggles for equality, justice and freedom, and engage in considered critique.
It requires us to journey across the chasms that divide us, on the basis of who we are and how we are defined, from within and without. As the new frontiers of human rights are become increasingly visible, in the words of Cox, 'the struggle continues'. It continually mutates and shifts, is redefined and given new shape and form across our contexts.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler