While it’s easy to criticise Germaine Greer and support Caitlyn Jenner, the real issue is far more complicated.
Last night on QandA, legendary feminist Germaine Greer was given a chance to clarify her position on the subject of being transgender. It was a position that got her into trouble last year when she suggested it was insulting for Caitlyn Jenner to be named Glamor Magazine’s 2015 Woman of the Year, because she’s “not a real woman.”
Now, first of all, I utterly disagree with Greer on most parts of this debate. I don’t pretend to understand how traumatic it must feel to be born into the wrong body but I know that gender dysphoria is real and that for most people it is confusing and often devastating. I believe everyone should use whatever pronoun – and bathroom – they like. I think rates of suicide amongst LGBTQI youth are terrifying and that the real, desperate needs of children and families are getting lost in our government’s mindless attempt at a plebiscite and its spineless efforts to tear down programs like Safe Schools.
When it comes to the whole Woman of the Year thing? I’m with Germaine. (Let’s put aside for a moment that it’s an award which has previously gone to Victoria Beckham, so we’re not exactly talking about the Nobel Prize, here…)
Is Caitlyn Jenner a role model for the transgender community? For sure. Is she a worthy recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award (which she also won in 2015)? Without a doubt.
Is she a successful, talented, charismatic, inspiring woman? Absolutely. But was she Woman of the Year? No. What I (and I think, Greer) take issue with is not only that Jenner got this award mere minutes into her womanhood after spending the majority of her life living as a man, but that she got it after spending the majority as the trifecta: a successful, wealthy, white man.
Since transitioning, Caitlyn has found even more success, wealth and fame, the likes of which is inconceivable for most women her age. She’s a cover girl, a TV star, has her own sports line for H&M and is the face of Mac Cosmetics. That’s impressive for any woman, let alone one in their 60’s. And the truth is that as a woman, there’s nothing particularly ground breaking or interesting about Jenner: she’s essentially a Beverly Hills mum who drinks cocktails and gets manicures. What is interesting is that she’s a woman who used to be a man.
I can see Greer’s point: being female isn’t like going to a kids’ birthday party – you shouldn’t get a prize just for showing up. As a female of similar age, Caitlyn is now Germaine’s contemporary, but while Greer spent the 70’s burning bras and fighting for equal rights, Jenner spent it as much-lauded male athlete, a national hero, with a wife at home minding the kids.
With that in mind, you start to see why Greer – a battle hardened, lifelong feminist – takes issue, when Jenner as the newly anointed Woman of the Year, says things like, “the hardest thing about being a woman is figuring out what to wear!” when there are millions of women who know that’s not true. Women who know the staggering rates of violence they face simply because of their gender. Women who know they still earn two-thirds of what their male counterparts do. Who still get blamed – and ostracised, even killed – for being raped; who are sold into slavery and prostitution; who are forced into arranged marriages and suffer forced genital mutilation. In the Western world, there are women who still can’t legally procure an abortion or get police officers to believe they weren’t encouraging men who sexually assault them (and even if they were, that it is no excuse). There are women who don’t feel safe on a Sydney train after 8pm, and who aren’t even safe in a Melbourne park on a sunny afternoon. Women who agree with Jenner that choosing their outfit is the most taxing part of their day – but only because they know that it’s their clothing and their appearance that defines how the world sees them, and they feel such pressure to get it right that it drives them towards extreme cosmetic surgeries and often fatal eating disorders.
There’s no question Germaine Greer has some real prejudices when it comes to the transgender community. She is clearly ignorant of their experiences and of their struggle. But I also think that she can see – when it comes to women’s rights – the fight is far from over, which is why it feels insulting that a prize meant for us goes to a former male Olympian. Caitlyn Jenner was a bad choice for Woman of the Year. Not because she’s not inspiring as a person, and not because she wasn’t always a woman, but because all she seems to have done to get the award was become a woman.
I am inspired by Malala Yousafzai who almost died trying to fight the limitations of her gender. I’m inspired by JK Rowling who is a testament to the determination of single mothers everywhere. And I’m also inspired by Melissa McCarthy, a lady whose entire career has been a giant middle finger to the pricks who think they can define what passes for funny, talented and beautiful in Hollywood. I’m inspired by Penny Wong and Rosie Batty, Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton. And yes, I’m inspired by Germaine Greer.
Thankfully, we now have education programs and support for young people struggling with issues regarding their sexuality and gender. I’m not saying for a second that it’s easy, but it’s easier than it’s ever been before. Kids are taught kindness and acceptance and are encouraged to be their true selves. They’re able to start hormone treatments at a young age and go to schools that accept them for whatever they choose to wear and whatever name they go by – which is exactly as it should be. Trans kids now have people like Caitlyn Jenner – and Cate McGregor, Laverne Cox and Jordan Raskopoulos – as inspirations that life after transition can be wonderful. With any luck (if the Turnbull Government doesn’t completely buckle to Cory Bernardi and his mob) this generation won’t have to struggle like Caitlyn did for 60 years. I applaud her courage in deciding, finally, to live her true life.
But I won’t automatically applaud her womanhood. I won’t accept that she understands what it’s like – as I don’t understand what it’s like to live each day as a male. She can’t know what feels like to have periods and grow boobs and birth babies. And then stay home and earn nothing while you raise them. She can’t know what it’s like to be sexualised as a pre-teen and told your skirt is too short or your top is too tight. Or that you’re not sexy enough – or that you’re too sexy and you can’t wear that ’cause it’ll send the wrong message, or that you can’t go there because it’s not safe. I don’t accept that she has any understanding of what it’s like to walk into a boardroom full of men in suits and try to be taken seriously. Or to have to justify why she deserves to earn more money. Or to decide between getting into a taxi late at night, risking getting harassed, or walking home alone, risking getting killed.
Caitlyn Jenner arrived fully formed as a corseted goddess on the cover of Vanity Fair. She said she felt amazing, and beautiful for the first time. Which is wonderful. She may feel she was born into the wrong body and I accept that entirely. But there is no avoiding the fact that in spite of feeling like a woman, she lived the majority of her life with the rights and privileges afforded to her as a man. And I don’t accept that this previous, privileged existence gives her an understanding of the intricate, complicated, uniquely female life her new body might have once led.
A lifetime of gendered lessons are hard to unlearn and Caitlyn herself admitted that after 60 years as Bruce, she is still figuring out how to be female. Bruce may have been the lie Caitlyn was living but there’s no denying that he helped form and influence the woman she became.
This is why it’s too easy to name Caitlyn Jenner “Woman of the Year.” And it’s too easy to criticise Germaine Greer for pointing this out.
In reality, it’s much more complicated.