Caitlyn Jenner's Memoir Is a Lost Opportunity to Educate Cis America

It's packed with contradictions about her relationship with gender, and that may confuse readers more than it will help them.
April 27, 2017, 9:02pm
Image via Flickr user Mike Mozart

"I want to be accessible," writes Caitlyn Jenner in her new memoir, The Secrets of My Life. "[C]hanging attitudes may be the hardest societal task of all. The best way for me to do that is to meet people and show them I am friendly and 'normal.'"

Since coming out as transgender on 20/20 in 2015, Jenner's made many attempts to get out there and meet people, from her bombshell Vanity Fair cover story to her politically charged reality series I Am Cait. Secrets is her most in-depth effort to humanize trans issues for the general public yet; in revealing all the gritty details of her lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria, the athlete-cum-reality star-cum-activist aims to wage a hearts-and-minds campaign for transgender rights.

It's not the worst idea, in theory. As Jennifer Finney Boylan told VICE earlier this month, "You can say what you like about Caitlyn Jenner, and a lot of what you would say I wouldn't disagree with, but the day after she came out, everyone in this country knew a transgender person." With Jenner's caliber of cultural saturation, as both a former athletic superstar and a reality TV A-lister, she's in a position to do a lot of good.

In other words, when Jenner talks, Cisgender America, for the most part, listens. Her words would not carry such import if she were one of many trans celebrities, but as that category remains woefully underpopulated, the influence she wields is massive.

Watch Ex-Scientology Leader and Trans Icon Kate Bornstein on What It Takes to Survive:

Jenner claims in Secrets that wielding this power isn't something she had in mind: "It is the media that has ordained me the spokesman for the transgender community," she claims, and anyway, "much of our fight is to get society to remove such meaningless labels as representative." But she nonetheless knows full well the duty of her position; "I have written this book because I am lucky to have a public platform and want to use it," she writes in Secrets closing chapter.

In focusing that platform through her own story, Secrets needed to humanize herself and her struggle for the public while explaining her relationship with gender with as much clarity as possible. Success would mean a digestible, sympathetic account of one woman's dysphoria that could dispel confusion about the trans experience among cis readers. It's unfortunate, then, that while she handily ensnares the reader's sympathies, Jenner contradicts herself so extensively as to render her relationship with gender inscrutable.

Jenner's life at the intersection of transness and celebrity is as accidental as it is unique. It's hard not to feel for her in particular when she describes the consequences of hypervisibility. Having lived under intense pressure to be masculine and the constant threat of international ridicule, it's impressive she managed to keep her head together for so long. In Secrets, Jenner recalls close shaves with being recognized while en femme in public, how staying in the closet damaged her marriages, and how gossip reporters once drove her to contemplate suicide:

I have already been labeled a freak in the tabloids. It will only get worse… I am still in the process of talking to each of [my children] to explain the gender issues I have had all my life. And now they are going to see some story that humiliates them and humiliates me. I keep thinking the same thought. You keep a gun in the house. Why not use it?

It's chilling to consider what one might have done when placed in Jenner's shoes (whether track or flats). Though Jenner hasn't had the hardest life, she nevertheless faced down some mighty demons—and did so with good humor, all things considered ("if I know anything about myself," she quips slyly, "it's that the legs work").

But clarity begins to go out the window when she attempts to define her relationship with gender, arguably Secrets' most vital purpose.

Wrapping up her prologue—a story about delivering corporate motivational speeches while yearning to get back to her hotel room and ditch the suit—Jenner states bluntly: "I do what I do best: I play Bruce." That's a perfectly reasonable and common way of describing one's experience of trans identity, and one Jenner goes back to fairly often: She calls living as Bruce a "façade," laments not telling her father she "never really was [Bruce]" before he died, and so on. "I seriously think about putting a stipulation into my will that I be buried as was always my gender," she writes during a pre-transition story. "Maybe that's the best and only answer to be the woman I always was… for more than twenty minutes in a hotel lobby…"

But just as often, Jenner takes a far different approach: that of "the woman inside me," the feeling "almost like I was two people." "Bruce was not a lie," she writes, but "a good man" and "a valuable part of my life." At one point, Jenner reveals that she kept her old breast forms and hip pads because "they symbolize my struggle when I was Bruce" (emphasis added). Again, reasonable and common—but a big shift in tone and intent from her other statements. How can "Bruce" be a lie and not a lie at the same time? Was "Bruce" a fiction made fact by necessity? Readers are left to speculate for themselves.

Jenner claims elsewhere that while her gender "has always been female," "I was a man who decide[d] to wear a dress when his wife and kids are away." Muddying the waters further are her assertions that while "Bruce was gone" after changing her birth certificate, he is also still around "on the inside, where he will happily remain for the rest of my days."

How best to describe Caitlyn Jenner's experience of transness, then? Can all these contradictions exist in one person? If even a trans woman like myself can't parse a narrative meant to educate cis people about what it's like to be trans, what exactly is accomplished here?

At best, The Secrets of My Life bolsters its author's social capital while failing to make the idea of trans identities—even Jenner's own—any more understandable for the average reader. If anything, it makes that concept harder for others to explain. Jenner has done some good work in raising money for trans charities, but this attempt at direct education falls flat, and that failure has consequences.

To be clear, this isn't a callout of Jenner for being toxic. That's old news, and if I wanted to beat that particular dead horse, I'd be pointing to antagonistic chapters about how Jenner's critics among the trans community—described in similar terms as the paparazzi she so despises—are "hostile" people with ideas that aren't connected to reality and who need to "get a life." I'm hurt and angered by those words and many more, but I'm also not the person who's supposed to read this book: It's for curious cis people who want to understand, from someone who wants to be America's Trans Friend.

"My word is not gospel," Jenner disclaims. That's certainly so, but as someone trying to command an extremely large and timely spotlight, Jenner has a responsibility to make her advocacy effective and clear. In The Secrets of My Life, it is lamentably neither—a failing the trans community cannot afford.

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