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Thursday, June 04, 2015

What Would Erving Goffman Say about Caitlyn Jenner?

Annie Leibovitz's portrait of Caitlyn Jenner, on the cover of Vanity Fair, has provoked a lot of commentary, both praising and critical. Many of my social media friends and acquaintances have been posting and reposting Jon Stewart's commentary, which went as follows:

Stewart's point is well taken and important to keep in mind. And yet it was, after all, Caitlyn Jenner's choice to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair in full conformity with the conventions of female depictions in magazines and advertisements.

In 1961, Erving Goffman published his little-known book Gender Advertisements. It is an album-sized book, consisting mainly of reproduced photos of 1950s product ads. Through these visuals, Goffman, the champion and granddaddy of the presentation of self as a performative act, proves his point: men, in ads, are DOING things. Women are POSING for the male gaze.

Compare Jenner's depiction on the Vanity Fair cover to her 1976 photo as a decathlete on the Wheaties box. In that photo, Jenner is depicted running, gazing away from the viewers and focused on the athletic performance. In the current photo, Jenner is depicted in a corset, doing nothing except gazing at the viewers. It's a textbook example of conformity to gender standards in visual depictions. 

It should go without saying that it is Jenner's choice to conform, or not, to these standards. Also, Jenner is operating within a context that measures transfolk by their ability to conform to cisnormative standards, and I can't fault her for choosing the traditional female gender depiction (in addition to the traditional female form and dress) as a measure of success in meeting these standards. Moreover, there are no guarantees that leering and jeering commentators wouldn't be commenting on her looks even if she *were* depicted as doing, rather than gazing. But I do want to point out that the perspective Stewart mocks in his segment is so insidious and pervasive that it is embraced by the women themselves, and that Jenner is as much a subject in the picture as an object of the gaze.

Laverne Cox's comments on this are apt:

But this has made me reflect critically on my own desires to ‘work a photo shoot’, to serve up various forms of glamour, power, sexiness, body affirming, racially empowering images of the various sides of my black, trans womanhood. I love working a photo shoot and creating inspiring images for my fans, for the world and above all for myself. But I also hope that it is my talent, my intelligence, my heart and spirit that most captivate, inspire, move and encourage folks to think more critically about the world around them.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on June 4, 2015 at 10:19 AM | Permalink



What makes this conformance to a gender standard rather than conformance to the Vanity Fair standard?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 4, 2015 9:26:30 PM

I love Goffman's Gender Advertisements! As well as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which you also link to. I think Goffman is due for an update (& sociologists have surely already done that) since the gaze for which one is posing or self-presenting is more multidimensional. But what makes these works so helpful is not just that Jenner is posing, which is expected, but the form of the pose, which mirrors the gendered images in Goffman's book. Her head is tilted, her gaze is sideways, her arms are behind her, her legs are crossed. Whenever a photographer has asked me to pose in this sort of way -- or slightly off balance, another trope -- I mention Goffman, which probably drives them crazy. I think Laverne Cox's approach is surely better.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Jun 4, 2015 1:56:44 PM

Fair enough, Derek. But a portrayal on a magazine cover is not something that is forced on you; it's something you choose to do because engaging with that platform suits you. I think the choice to engage with a platform, with the trope it advances, reflects a choice to be seen in a certain way and communicate a certain message.

Posted by: Hadar | Jun 4, 2015 12:15:43 PM

"Compare Jenner's depiction on the Vanity Fair cover to her 1976 photo as a decathlete on the Wheaties box."

Wheaties thing is the depiction of athletes doing athletics. Vanity Fair's thing is being a pop culture and fashion magazine. That's why the depictions are different.

On Wheaties, Lindsey Vonn is shown skiing. Misty May-Treanor is shown hitting a volley ball. Nastia Liukin is shown doing a gymnastics jump. Sarah Hughes is shown figure skating. Almost everyone on a Wheaties box, male or female, is depicted DOING things rather than POSING. Jim Thorpe's 2001 box is a rare exception.

Over at Vanity Fair, we can see Tom Cruise posing. Colin Farrell posing. Johnny Depp posing. Don Cheadle and Barack Obama posing together. John Hamm posing. When Michael Jordan was on the cover in 1998, was he shown playing basketball? Nope, he was (shirtless) posing. One of the rare exceptions to the posing rather than doing style of Vanity Fair is the 1999 shot of Mia Hamm, nearly completely horizontal in the air about to kick a soccer ball. But, typically Vanity Fair still has its athlete subjects posing rather than doing.

If it were Bruce on the cover today instead of Caitlyn, it wouldn't be Bruce performing in an Olympic decathalon, because (1) Vanity Fair doesn't do that type of photography, and (2) the photo would be about 40 years out of date.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 4, 2015 12:08:48 PM

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