Bruce Jenner & the Soul of a Woman

4-24-2015-9-35-46-pmN & I finally caught the Bruce Jenner interview everyone tweeted about a couple weeks ago. It was not hard-hitting. At one point early on, Diane Sawyer asked him point blank, “Are you a woman?” Jenner said he was, “for all intents and purposes.” He said that despite the male body he’s lived in for 60+ years, he has the “heart and soul” of a woman.

Here was the point for Sawyer to ask the question I ask more than any other, especially of students and people I’m interviewing: What does that mean?”

Instead, they cut to archival footage of his Olympic victory.

I don’t imagine Jenner—or even Sawyer for that matter, given her confusion about Jenner’s situation—has read Judith Butler, so it’s not like I wanted them to start talking about gender as a performance. But this is what gender is, and Jenner is beginning to perform “female” with his hair and skin and nails and jewelry and blouses. We all do it. I’m “male” because I buy certain clothes. I wear my hair a certain way. I ask people to use male pronouns when referring to me.

What does it mean for Jenner, then, that he has the soul of a woman?[1] What are the traits in there that distinguish it from the soul of a man? How does his soul—his genuine, unperformed self—differ from mine? Any answer I might come up with for him brings us back into the realm of lockstep gender traditions. Is his soul passive? Is it nurturing? Is it social? What does that mean?

There’s more to say here in a longer post about the genderqueer, essentialism and legislation, or desire and public perception, but my point here is that Sawyer missed an opportunity at bringing notions of gender fluidity to light.[2] Also: a soul is not a performative space.

Unless, of course, you’re a reality TV star.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “I’m me,” he said in the interview. “My brain is much more female than it is male. That’s what my soul is. Bruce lives a lie. She [how he referred to his post-transition self] is not a lie.”
  2. Not that this was the aim of the interview. The teasing throughout about what a post-trans Jenner would look like, and what name he’ll go by—neither of which data were actually revealed—showed us that what we spent two hours watching was a long trailer for his forthcoming reality show on the subject.

3 thoughts on “Bruce Jenner & the Soul of a Woman”

  1. It’s a difficult situation, though, isn’t it, because if Sawyer had followed up as you wish she had, how do you expect Jenner would have responded? Probably not with the same thoughtful and nuanced analysis of gender as performance that you’re capable of communicating. Probably instead we would have heard a mishmash of essentialism, self-help, and mystique — not very useful. But we don’t blame Jenner for feeling like he feels, of course, and we probably also shouldn’t blame him for not having the tools to articulate and analyze the cultural consequences and contexts of those feelings. Sawyer could have asked the question, but could he have given a useful answer?

  2. I actually think a non-nuanced, “uninformed” response would be super useful. I’ve had enough theories of gender and gender dysphoria. I’d like to hear more direct experiences of it. Saywer’s a good enough reporter she could have led him toward insight or clarity. Or, if not clarity, then honesty. But she seemed fine with platitudes.

    Feel like Oprah would’ve dug into that soul more.

  3. OK, that’s a hopeful and sound point of view, but my fear is that, like most folks, both she and he can’t tell the difference between platitudes and honesty. 8-( Hope all’s well with y’all.

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