Caitlyn Jenner, feminism and the beauty trap

Indian-American actress and Bollywood star Aarthi Agarwal. Did lipo contribute to her death at age 31?

Indian-American actress and Bollywood star Aarthi Agarwal. Did lipo contribute to her death at age 31?

Provocative piece in The New York Time’s Sunday Review by journalist, filmmaker and former women’s studies professor Elinor Burkett, who, while sympathetic to transgendered women like Caitlyn Jenner, doesn’t want them to co-opt her experience of womanhood.

“…As much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman,” Burkett writes in “What Makes A Woman?

For her, the answer to that question takes a lot more than the nail polish Jenner referred to in her interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/20.”

The essay earned Burkett the sobriquet “crotchety” and brought me back to the days of my youth when feminists were often considered humorless battle-axes who despised Marilyn Monroe.

As Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn was a handsome man. He was married to three very attractive women and fathered good-looking children. He has equally good-looking stepchildren. So the chances that he would want to be anything less than a babe as a woman were slim and none. Besides which, plenty of women, pre- and post-feminism, have enjoyed being babes.

But we feel Burkett’s pain. Caitlyn Jenner has lived all of her life as a man and not just any man, but a privileged alpha male, a gold-medal athlete. However tortured she was as a woman trapped in a man’s body, she hasn’t experienced years of discrimination, humiliation, harassment, assault, mutilation and rape that other women who have lived their whole lives as women have experienced.

And Burkett is right to take society to task for its emphasis on looks. It’s the kind of emphasis that may have cost Bollywood star Aarthi Agarwal her life after lipo suction. It’s the kind of emphasis that led Jessica Diehl, Vanity Fair’s fashion and style director, to tell The New York Times: “The one thing that makes it easier to dress someone is proportion. Caitlyn’s proportions are fashion proportions, really. She’s tall, slim, narrow hipped, kind of ideal to dress.” 

In other words, the perfect woman is a man, because I got to tell ya, few women look like Caitlyn Jenner, few women are 6 foot, 2 inches with narrow hips and a 36D cup.

Women, however, have cooperated in the beauty trap. Whenever I tell them that men should be the primary sex symbols in our culture, that the best-looking man is better-looking than the best-looking woman – particularly from an art historical perspective – women bristle. They have long learned to leverage their beauty as a kind of power when they have been denied economic and political power until recently. They’re not about to give up that beauty – or the status it conveys.

And power-sharing is not such an entrenched part of our culture either – this despite Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House – that powerful women aren’t criticized for being bitches.

What is the answer? Perhaps as we move to the recognition of a variety of genders and sexualities – there’s talk of using Mx. or no honorific instead of Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Miss in addresses – we can recommit ourselves to the concept of the individual, not as a selfish entity but as an integrated whole of which gender is just one facet.

Then maybe we’ll be OK with having our nail polish and our feminist principles, too.