Photo Credit: Vanity Fair
The Jenner mystery is now solved. The transformation of Bruce Jenner into her female identity Caitlyn Jenner entranced the media and the world as we all watched this change unfold. Though shocked as everyone may have been, few can dispute the introduction of Caitlyn went as smooth as could be for the media savvy star, and her Kardashian clan.
So just how did they all pull off such a controversial announcement while successfully keeping even the most shocked fans of the former Olympian from criticizing the newly introduced Caitlyn?
We have a few theories.
EXPECTATIONS MET REALITY
Professor Stephen Hinerman discusses the need for celebrities to manage fans’ expectations, presenting an image that syncs with those expectations. When celebrities behave in an unexpected way, audiences feel alienated and that divide between expectation and reality results in scandal.
This was anything but scandalous. Caitlyn’s Vogue cover confirmed what media and audiences had been pondering for months. Fans had been coached to speculate about Jenner’s gender identity by teaser-style news stories and gossip magazines long before the reveal finally answered the question of he or she? When audiences finally learned what they had been thinking was true, rather than shock, they felt confirmation. The question was answered. That answer, somewhat expected.
Jenner kept up with the Kardashians in almost every way, emerging as a sleek and beautiful 65-year-old woman. Almost immediately, she was compared to Jennifer Garner, Rene Russo and Jessica Lange. Some even raised the issue of photoshopping being used on Caitlyn’s cover, a certain sign of “normal” issues surrounding covergirls these days.
THE STORY WAS NOTHING NEW
While transgender individuals have appeared in celebrity news, most often it is in salacious stories of duped celebrities and cheating lovers. Not exactly positive spin for the transgender community, a group growing in vocal numbers and actively seeking the same acceptance gays and lesbians have been fighting for over the past three decades.
Photo Credit: ABC News
Caitlyn’s two-part approach to introducing her true identity (a Diane Sawyer interview and then a Vogue cover shoot, not to mention being able to watch what was happening behind-the-scenes on episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians) turned these media messages on their head, presenting a successful strategy for managing audiences by sharing information about the decision in pieces rather than one shocking, visual revelation.
This incredibly savvy public relations move not only benefits the Kardashian clan, but the entire transgender community.
By first discussing the choice to live life as Caitlyn, not Bruce, from here on out, and then presenting Caitlyn’s image, Jenner allowed audiences, who had been speculating for months, to think through her personal motivation without being consumed by the technicalities of gender transformation. In the end, audiences left supporting Jenner as a face for this often misrepresented community.
What truly cemented Jenner’s story, however, was expressing her long-running desire to change, a message she consistently communicated in all arenas. Research demonstrates the most persuasive narratives can be traced over time. For Jenner, this was critical to persuading media critics and fans that this was not a publicity stunt. Jenner admitted to taking hormones in the 1980's to begin transitioning, and stopped only when - then as Bruce - she met Kris Kardashian. These tidbits allowed audiences to believe Jenner’s intentions were sincere.
THE PUBLIC’S EMOTIONS WERE LEGITIMIZED
With this story being officially told, audiences - who may or may not have experienced the “coming out” of a transgender individual - were shown exactly how to treat this individual. Jenner received respect from both Sawyer and Vogue, most likely a strict requirement for the exclusive stories. In turn, they presented the transgender experience in a real and complicated way.
The Kardashians all played supporting roles, demonstrating the emotions of shock, disbelief, sadness, and most importantly, acceptance. The family was given months to process the change, so that by the time well-placed media coverage confirmed Jenner’s gender transformation, the “K” girls could stand solidly behind the new letter in their family: C.
Much effort goes into managing our emotions to be socially acceptable
By presenting the family’s reflections on Bruce-to-Caitlyn, audiences’ own feelings were legitimized. It was okay to feel confused about this story, because as the Kardashians showed us, they too were confused. Their honest responses, all taped for this season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, allowed audience members to accept their feelings as part of a process of acceptance.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild noted that much effort goes into managing our emotions to be socially acceptable. For viewers, the Kardashian family legitimized potentially mixed emotions about Jenner’s transition, positioning them as part of the normal process of grieving.
The media quickly transitioned to using Jenner’s new name and pronouns, providing a road map for audiences wondering how to proceed. And in typical media fashion, Caitlyn Jenner was quickly treated like any other cover girl, focusing on her hair, clothes, and physique.
While Jenner will now have to contend with the coverage many female celebrities feel frustrated by – a constant, critical eye on appearance – she certainly starts her journey from a strong foothold. As the most iconic and well-liked celebrity persona to publicly transition from a male to female identity, the reality of Jenner’s day to day life has yet to unfold, but her starting place seems like a good one.