Justice

The One Big Problem with Diane Sawyer's Interview with Bruce Jenner

April 26th 2015

By:
Aron Macarow

In Diane Sawyer's introduction to the much anticipated 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner, she concludes, "And we think it is only a story that can be told by someone who lived it."

With that casual remark, ABC's Sawyer set the tone for a special that raised the bar for reporting on the transgender community, falling prey to none of the major voyeuristic missteps that Katie Couric, Piers Morgan, and other television journalists have made before her. But that doesn't mean that the circus surrounding the special isn't voyeuristic, and it doesn't mean that there aren't still many questions raised by the interview about how trans people are covered within the media. But we'll get there later. First let's talk about the interview itself.

The Interview

While others may not remember Katie Couric's discussion with Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera on her syndicated talk show more than a year ago, I do. And I'm reasonably certain that many other members of the trans community do as well. Why? Because an episode that was supposed to be an opportunity for two stunning trans women of color to talk about their success, their advocacy, and important issues that affect them as transgender women dissipated into scrutinizing these women's bodies in front of a national audience. Couric focused particularly on their genitals and transition surgery, and was shutdown by Cox with a flawless response about the fetishization of transpeople: "The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies transpeople. And then we don't get to really deal with the real lived experiences."

Although Sawyer's interview does touch on surgeries, she makes it extremely clear that Jenner brought up the topic himself. (Although it pains me, we'll use male pronouns for Jenner throughout this article out of respect to the pronoun preference that Jenner expressed in the special.) Sawyer emphasizes that questions about surgery and particularly about genitals are generally not appropriate and to take the lead from the person to whom you are speaking, stating in a voice-over, "As for full surgery, the transgender community asks everyone to respect privacy and to steer away."

This shouldn't be a necessary distinction to make -- what cisgender (non-transgender) person gets asked regularly about private medical facts? -- but my experience has been that plenty of strangers and some friends don't know where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate. So thank you and bravo to Sawyer for stating this; I hope it makes a difference.

These voice-overs and short pieces of on-camera narration are one of the two hallmarks that make Sawyer's interview the new standard by which future media transition stories can be judged: not perfect by any means, but leaps ahead of past similar 'coming out' spectacles. They offer clarifying and educational comments for an at-home audience that is likely not knowledgeable about trans issues, briefly and fairly skillfully covering a range of topics from pronouns to the lack of employment protections for transgender people.

The overarching bits of narration are particularly helpful when discussing the difference between gender and sexual orientation as well as Jenner's preferred pronouns, both of which could spark confusion in viewing audiences, partly because of the way that Jenner himself handles both topics. There's a peculiar erasure of Jenner's lesbianism -- he identifies as female and states that he is attracted to women while emphasizing in his words that he "is heterosexual" -- that makes me wonder if Jenner's just not quite there yet due to internalized homophobia. Because everything a trans celebrity does can easily reflect on the larger community, though, I was placated by Sawyer's voice-over narration before Jenner speaks again, informing the audience simply that some trans people are "straight, some gay, some bisexual, just like all of us." She also emphasizes that gender and sexual orientation are two separate identities.

Similarly, Sawyer successfully uses male pronouns for Jenner throughout the interview at Jenner's own preference, while avoiding indicating that he is anything other than who he says -- a trans woman. (CNN's Piers Morgan meanwhile sensationalized Janet Mock's identity by referring to her as "formerly a man" in his 2014 interview with the writer and advocate, suggesting that she was "a boy until 18," contrary to Mock's own self-description.) The pronouns disappointed me, but for once not because of the interviewer's actions. Instead, it's Jenner who starts out strong, pushing back on the narrative of being born in the wrong body, who ends up letting me down with what feels like a side step.

"I'm me, I'm a person, and this is who I am. I'm not stuck in anyone's body. It's just who I am as a human being," says Jenner powerfully at the beginning of the interview before reverting to a dual understanding of himself as Bruce and as She. (It becomes clear as the interview proceeds that we're still largely with Bruce and will meet She later, perhaps on the forthcoming E! docuseries.)

Rather than use male pronouns and let it go at that, however, Sawyer's narration tells the viewer that pronouns are "very important in the transgender community." She clarifies that male pronouns as well as Jenner's birth name are only being used at the former Olympian's request. Hopefully, this avoids giving the impression that trans people aren't who they say they are and that the pronouns and names we choose to use as we come out are valid and should be respected.

Perhaps the best thing about Friday night's segment was how much ABC let Jenner speak for himself. I've already written at ATTN: about the importance of letting Jenner tell his story in his own words, at a time and place of his choosing. By chiefly highlighting Jenner and not the interviewer, a panel of 'experts,' or even much focus on his family and friends, 20/20 gave a transgender person a platform from which to speak directly about their own experience. While many in the trans community (myself included) are afraid of Jenner's personal history being taken as representative of all trans people, this is overall a huge step forward.

Jenner may be white, wealthy, and famous. He may be able to afford the best medical care as he transitions, and he doesn't have to worry about feeding his family, paying rent, or discrimination in employment or housing touching his life like many in the trans community. Jenner also likely wouldn't be where he was if he had transitioned earlier in life, which remained undiscussed in the interview. (Despite mild changes to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules in 2004, there have still been no transgender Olympians and spurious debate about transgender people having an "unfair advantage" in sports is still rampant.) Jenner is obviously not representative of all transgender people. But he is a transgender person and he was treated with dignity and respect in Sawyer's interview and allowed to speak for himself in a largely unquestioned manner. That is most definitely progress. But is it worth celebrating?

In a small way, yes. The audience that tuned in on Friday was likely unique, reflecting Jenner's fans both from recent Kardashian fame and also his triathlete days. This means that not only younger more LGBT positive people tuned in; the over 50 crowd that remembers Jenner as the Olympic hero from the Wheaties box were also probably watching. That demographic has long been considered outside the "moveable middle," those whose minds are more likely open to change on gay and transgender equality issues, and I'm curious how this interview will affect their views.

Mostly, however, this leads into the larger question brought up by #BruceJennerInterview and the almost 17 million viewers of show last night: Why are we still talking about this?

When will transgender coming out stories stop being news?

When NBA star Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013, it wasn't nearly the magnitude a news story that Ellen DeGeneres was, who came out to a media circus in 1997. Watching the Bruce Jenner interview, particularly the lead up to it, the teaser at the end from Sawyer that she's been invited to come back in a year to check-in on the former Olympian, the docuseries from E! that's still forthcoming, and I have to wonder when it will all stop.

I worked on Friday night while the Jenner 20/20 special aired, so I wasn't subject to the live updates and the immediate responses from news outlets across the globe. But when I go to work every day, I'm afraid of the conversations. I'm afraid of being asked to weigh in as a member of the community. I'm afraid of the inevitable invasive questions, no matter how delicately the interview itself was handled. I know that the interview is already the talk of the day. My partner came back from their haircut yesterday morning and reported that it was the only thing being talked about at the shop.

As Laverne Cox so eloquently stated to Couric, "The reality of transpeople's lives is that we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among transwomen. If we focus on transition, we don't actually get to talk about those things."

Those are the things about transgender people that are newsworthy -- the discrimination and oppression that are lived realities for so many in the community everyday. Those are the issues that we need to be talking about as a society. When are we going to get beyond the spectacle, the desire to 'humanize' transgender people by delving publicly into our inner lives to show that we're just like everyone else?

The other things that are newsworthy? The accomplishments of transgender people, the day-to-day actions, that have nothing to do with our bodies and our transitions. Those are the other realities that we don't get to talk about when the media and our culture get hung up on the coming out spectacle.

So although I applaud Sawyer and ABC for a job well done -- and I thank Jenner for sharing his story -- I also hope that this marks the final of such interviews with any celebrity. I know this won't be the case, that we're not there yet. But someday I do know that transgender people won't have to worry about just being remembered for their bravery in transitioning. We'll be remembered as ourselves, alongside everything else that makes us who we are. I'm looking forward to that day.