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Jenner and Gender Performativity

24/07/2015 12:29 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

The celebration of Caitlyn Jenner's transition to womanhood is evidence of a now widespread acceptance that gender is performative, rather than the outward manifestation of an inner biological fact. This should be liberating and hopefully for many trans-women and men it will be.

What perhaps is disappointing for many women is the extremely conservative way in which Jenner has manifest this identity. Appearing corseted on the front cover of Vanity Fair is hardly a portrayal of a liberated woman: instead it harkens back to a period where gender roles were more entrenched and punishing, for women in particular. In fact the whole photo shoot looks backwards to an age of old Hollywood glamour: the fetishizing of women as exquisite object at a remove from physical life, perhaps drinking highballs in the afternoon, high on valium waiting for a husband to return from work. This is a woman who is trapped within the narrow confines of gender normativity, and hardly the example of a strong, independent woman that we might want to give our daughters. Or for that matter our sons.

This is not her problem alone: others are complicit in this aggressive assertion of strict gender binaries. Bodies, both masculine and feminine, have taken on cartoon like proportions: while in high fashion models are skeletal elsewhere busts and butts are swollen in exaggerated parodies of 'womanly-ness' and men's musculature is increasingly defined and inflated into bulging lumps. Almost no one, it seems, can just let their body be. Outrage earlier this year at the pernicious "beach body ready" advert sparked a number of curious reactions. What was interesting about the fury was that this advert seemed no different from any number of other bikini ads which plague our billboards in the run up to the summer. These ads, with the message implicit, suggested rather than outspoken, are perhaps more insidious for their silence. However the battle against this kind of body fascism will not be won by incorporating a wider range of body types into the commodifying gaze that is at the service of capitalism. The bikini advert for 'plus sized' women made in response only shows what we already know, that there is just as much scope to sexualise these women, placing them firmly as objects, rather than subjects of desire, as their slightly slimmer sisters. All this reminds me of the "blessed with curves" type narrative often set forth by burlesque dancers, the inverse of the supermodel's "gangly and awkward teenager" story. Both miss the point, falling instead in to a well-set trap, as if pleased that these bodies too have been deemed acceptable for consumption. Neither offer a way out of the deadlock where the female body is seen as commodity, seeking to please a consumer, gendered male. Entering into the frame that is at the service of this system, even when this is elective (as with selfies) is not liberation, but rather its opposite - we have become self-policing.

Equality of objectification is equality of objectification, rather than anything more human that might recognise and acknowledge that we are more than the sum of our parts. Surely the joy of having a body is to be found in the living in it. The increasing pressure to project our image outwards, to view our selves as these complete concluded things, rather than something that may be closer to how we actually experience life, is to be at constant war with ourselves, in what essentially is a loosing battle. Why not enjoy ourselves while we can?

Jenner's Arthur Ashe award speech last week exemplifies this oppressive reduction of women to their outfits, their image:

Picking out this outfit, ok girls I get it, you've got to get the shoes, the hair the make up. The whole process it was exhausting

It also plays on a dull stereotype where women care only about clothes. This can be hard for those women identifiers amongst us who want to broaden out the notion of what it means and most importantly how it feels to be a woman. All this is not to say that Jenner does not deserve respect for going through what must have been a gruelling process, both physically and mentally. I have no idea what it feels like to be a transwoman and look forward to learning more, though I doubt much will be gleaned from her forth coming reality tv show. What seems fairly clear from this transition is that progress towards recognising and living out gender as a set of varied characteristics that exist upon a spectrum is slow: Jenner conforms to exacting and normative standards of feminine beauty. While the world's celebratory embrace of her may be a triumph for the trans community, most of all this is a victory for capitalism and a glaring reminder of its endlessly recuperative abilities.