My friend Mauro Cabral, the great trans activist from Argentina, wrote this week on Facebook:
An American journalist wants to chat with me about Bruce Jenner’s story. She wants to know if I expect this new global leadership to help trans people in my country.
I told her that, to be honest, I am not following the story.
She asks me if I have good access to Internet.
Bruce Jenner has worn the two greenest laurels American life bestows, as sports hero and reality TV star. When he comes out as transgender, in an interview seen by one-twentieth of the country’s population, surely the world must be watching. The only holdouts are in the Stone Age caves of Buenos Aires, where people communicate by smoke signals.
For Mauro, this is the old American imperialism, sure that whatever happens in the 50 states shakes the planet. But it’s not just about foisting a new “global leader” on us. For me, an American, it also reveals a naïve confidence that the way we do politics is universal. Americans have given the globe a new kind of social transformation: change without action, progress without movements, transformation in the passive voice.
It used to be that when you dreamed of transforming society, you dreamed of deeds. Revolution was a name for that kind of action. Revolutions were compendia of great acts: manning barricades or withstanding massacres, the journées of bravery and danger, the assault on the Winter Palace, the confrontations with kings. Paintings or photographs preserve the figures of that age, in static and stylized tableaus; but even under those stiff cemented poses you can feel the taut muscles still pulsing, bursting through the flatness into our time and dimensions, like the withers of great horses straining to break free. They made oaths, which mortgaged their lives to future action; they pledged their fortunes and their sacred honor, or plighted an immortal solidarity on a disused tennis court. Of course, there was a lot of talking. They spoke and spoke. But when Patrick Henry cried out “Liberty or death,” or Trotsky shouted to the sweaty soviets about the dustbin of history, the words themselves became as hard as deeds. “The words fell like hammerstrokes,” people said. They meant that in the tension of transformation everything became an act. Each syllable forged a weapon. History was not what happened, but what you made: the energy of a common workman suddenly pounded time itself into shape as if it were molten steel.
Everybody knows revolutions are over. Their time is past. Now we have Social Change. Social Change is committed by NGOs, furtively, like masturbation. Progressive donors who fund progressive NGOs working on Social Change often have something called a Theory of Change, to help decide whose change is theoretical enough to get the money. If you talk to such a donor, they may ask what your Theory of Change is. Usually they don’t expect you to have taken time off to think of one. They want to know you’ve read their website, and come with something enough like their own Theory to pass. A plausible Theory of Change might go like this. People need empowerment. This doesn’t mean appropriating anybody else’s power (or money; donors can be sensitive on this point). It means making them feel better about themselves; which means talking about rights and giving them role models. The role models are vital; power flows from their fingertips. A few celebrities can charge the world with change like electric current purring through great powerlines. They stand alone like latticed steel towers, strung together by their own strength. They do the public work, while the NGOs wank in private. Change happens so seamlessly that it never even slipped into the active voice. You can imagine trying to sell something like this to the Parisian sans culottes, or the Communards. But they lived in an age of darkness, with resources infinitely inferior to our own. Our lives touch the stars; we have satellite TV. The Theory of Change is a theory of the celebrity interview.
Bruce Jenner is a decent person, who wants his life to mean something; but his image, now as before, is out of his hands. “We’re going to change the world,” he told the cameras (in all the discussion of his use of pronouns, no one asked if the “we” was royal or collective). And everybody agreed. He’ll change the world by being himself, and doing it in public. The word for such a sedentary world-changer is “icon.” An icon is, of course, a religious image; it’s necessarily inert. It answers prayers through the power of our faith in it, without lifting a painted finger.
And now he’s a transgender icon, an “icon of change.” “I couldn’t think of a stronger icon,” said one trans activist in Canada. “I’m team Bruce all the way.” In a New Zealand concert, Demi Lovato “dedicated her track Warrior to transgender icon Bruce Jenner,” “an American hero.” (“This whole fame thing starts taking over and people know your name and then all of a sudden – boom – you’re in rehab,” she warned him, apparently forgetting he went through that crucifixion before she was born.) There are no iconoclasts. Even people who don’t like him don’t dispute the icons’ power. “Trans people need an icon,” one op-ed read. “But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice.”
These aren’t metaphors. They’re manifestoes. They offer a strategy as clear as anything in Rules for Radicals or What Is To Be Done? The panoply of ideas that icon-worship brings has become our essential jargon: the “teachable moment,” the “national conversation,” the importance of “awareness.” These goods are the intangible benefits celebrities can give us, just as healing radiates from the icon’s frame. The politics are magical and royalist. The “awareness” is entirely about the celebrities themselves, not of material facts that lie beyond their lives. Jenner took pains to emphasize in his interview, “I am not a spokesman for the community.” And he went on to list a lot of issues the community confronts: discrimination, health care, murder. But what sticks in the memory are the “simple goals” the cameras coaxed out of him: “To have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”
Under the nail polish, here are some figures about other transgender lives.
- A 2011 survey of almost 6500 trans people in the US found they were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
- One-fifth said they had been homeless at some point. Those are roughly the same figures that a 1997 city investigation found in liberal, protective San Francisco.
- Only one-fifth had been able to update all their IDs to match their lived gender, and one-third had no matching ID at all.
- One-fifth had no health insurance (as opposed to roughly 16% for the general population at the time). 18% had been verbally harassed in a medical setting, and 19% had been denied care because of their gender identity or expression.
- Trans people reported four times the national average for HIV infection — trans women, eight times. Trans African-Americans were ten times more likely to be HIV-positive than other African Americans.
- 16% of trans people overall – 21% of trans women – reported they had been incarcerated; among African-American trans people, that crested to 47%. In 2014, the US government estimated that 40% of trans people in prison have suffered sexual assault or abuse. That’s ten times the numbers among other prisoners. In California, studies of state prisons found that 59% of transgender women held in men’s units had been sexually assaulted by other inmates. 14% had been sexually assaulted by staff.
- Of the 6500 trans people surveyed, 41% said they had attempted suicide: almost thirty times the figures for the US population overall.
Bruce Jenner can put a face on some transgender lives. But after that? A comforting face can easily hide comfortless facts. What you’re left with is a trickle-down theory of consciousness: that fame rubs off; that visibility is contagious; that Jenner has the strength to change the “national conversation” because his image was on a Wheaties box once. What is this redemptive power of breakfast? In the South, where I grew up, generations of white folks started their day eating pancakes blessed by a happy black woman smiling generously from the label: Aunt Jemima, an icon of love. It didn’t stop them from getting up from the table and going off to join the Ku Klux Klan.
The politics of icons strikes me as one of the great gifts the gay movement proffered to America as a whole: so it’s natural that trans folk too should be expected to embrace it. (Remember, “transgender people need an icon,” even more than they do IDs.) “Gay Icon” actually has a Wikipedia entry; so do “Madonna As a Gay Icon” and “Cher As a Gay Icon.” Resilience, suffering, “triumph over adversity” nearly always figure in the definitions: “It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned [Judy, you idiot] Garland her status as a Gay Icon.” Drug addict! Fat girl! Multiple divorcée! Or as RuPaul says:
People always ask, ‘What makes a gay icon?’ People who have been ostracized or pushed outside of society relate to other people who have their exact same qualities and personality traits. The spiritual being having to dumb down to fit in.
I disagree, though. There’s a historical confusion here. When I was a kid back in the Middle Ages, learning to read by the light of burning witches, we had “divas,” not icons. Those indeed were famous women who had suffered and survived: Judy, Joan Crawford, Callas, Billie Holiday. Gay men identified with them because they offered a pushed-to-extremity version of what pop culture (or certain corners of high culture) promised to do: provide figures so immense, so superhuman, so intense in experience and emotion that they could contain all of us, like Whitman’s pan-American ego, and redeem our subjection to our grinding daily injustices by making it grandiose, gorgeous, unforgettable. Their sufferings were infinitely direr and more stylish. There was a tragic side, but this wasn’t catharsis: it was transfiguration.
Very few of these stars ever said anything in public about gay people. If they did, it was far from sure to be supportive. (Bette Midler was one of the only players before the 1980s who openly embraced a gay audience — and gay causes. That helped keep her more a cult figure than a major star. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, last of the disco divas, supposedly told a gay crowd that “AIDS is your sin … God loves you. But not the way you are now.”) But that was fine, because their usefulness wasn’t political but personal. They were tools to forge imaginary selves, means to endure the everyday by sublating it, the dialectic as redecorated by Douglas Sirk.
The first top-rank, A-list star I remember who publicly exulted in her gay audience was Madonna. It’s hard to recapture how, as they say, transformational it was. She was the first real gay icon: somebody who promised not just inner triumph but the hope of everyone accepting you, loving you. There was no tragedy to her: neither in persona nor in person did she suggest suffering, being “pushed outside of society.” She did her own pushing. And she evoked not identification but adoration. Loving Madonna was an affair with the unattainable; fame was intrinsic to her being, and because she was famous she was radically different from you. There could be no question of her encompassing your problems. She was beyond all that.
When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there was a young gay undergrad named Alek Keshishian, dying to be famous. I didn’t know him personally; his name showed up once on the student list for a section I was teaching, but he never appeared, and later he dropped the class. For student theater, he memorably staged a rock opera version of Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff were rock stars, trying to deal with the pressures of fame. (Alek sent invites to reviewers from all the Boston papers, and got some favorable notices. This unheard-of self-advertising roused indignation in the dining halls: student theater was supposed to be for students.) Some of the songs he used in the opera were by Kate Bush and some were by Madonna, and when he contacted Madonna’s people to get the rights he managed, through sheer pushfulness, to speak to her. She took him on as fanboy and protégé, and after that he was in Fame Heaven. Straight out of college he started filming her tours and the backstage drama, and in 1991 he directed Truth or Dare – also known as In Bed With Madonna – which became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Its fame was transoceanic. I was living in Budapest by then, and if I mumbled half-mendaciously to somebody in the city’s one gay club that “Madonna’s director was my student,” my chance of getting laid increased twelvefold. Fame does rub off, in a long-distance frottage.
Alek never really did anything outside Madonnaworld. The rest of his career comprised music videos and the like; most recently he co-wrote a film with her, about another couple dealing with the pressures of fame, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you Google him, he turns up on a page called “Today in Madonna History.” His story seems to me a parable of the period: not Wuthering Heights, but Great Expectations.
You cathect to icons, but in a different way from divas. Divas once summed up your life; icons are imperial beings vastly above it, who bless it just by being there. Sorrow doesn’t touch them – Kylie MInogue said that divas “usually have some tragedy in their lives, but I’ve only had tragic haircuts and outfits.” The icons aren’t the drug addicts or the fat girls made good. They’re the rich kids who picked on the drug addicts and the fat girls. They’re emblems for an era where failure is the unforgivable sin. (B. J. Whiting, the great medievalist, used to ask his Harvard students at the beginning of every year to name the Seven Deadly Sins. A few always listed poverty, sickness, and unemployment.)
The fascination with celebrity is ingrained deep in Western gay life. Partly, I think, it comes from the debilitating experience of the closet, which despite the premature triumphalism of outness still shapes our lives. The wounds of self-concealment breed a fetish for completely public selves, all crevices open to the klieg lights.
These days, we justify this star-fucking by saying that young queer kids need role models. They do; but role models they can’t speak to and can never hope to be? No lonely trans or gay youth seriously thinks he’s going to become famous as Tom Cruise or rich as Tim Cook. Children dream, but they’re not delusional like adults. They know the destinies of the stars lie beyond their grasp. Most of the hyper-successful win through inheriting looks or money, or through pure random luck in the Babylon lottery we inhabit. Their triumphs aren’t imitable. Some have real prowess, as Jenner had. (There’s an argument that Americans indulge the immense salaries of sports heroes because it’s almost the only field of American life where you can’t fake success. You either make the touchdown or you don’t – unlike corporate CEOs, who can cook the books more ways than Julia Child.) But that prowess came as much from genes as from the gym; it isn’t readily replicable, any more than you can get Oum Kulthoum’s vocal range by practicing your scales. We all bought Wheaties with Jenner’s picture when I was a kid, but we didn’t buy the line that we’d become him. Icons don’t reveal possibility. They embody inequality. It’s no coincidence that celebrity politics flowered in the Reagan era, which didn’t just cement inequality but celebrated it as US society’s vital principle.
But the icon appeals in a different way to the insecure and unwanted: it makes them feel accepted by the big guys, the in crowd, the Mean Girls or Heathers or the playground bullies. Icons are about how the powerless love power. (In the UK, Gay Times named Tony Blair, the warrior god, “top gay icon” of the last 30 years. No one would dare call you a fag if you could destroy a country.) My old friend Lisa Power, a distinguished British queer campaigner, is researching how activists identify their role models. The celebrity fixation, she wrote me, is “about approval and validation, proving that popular people want to hang with us.”
She added: “One of the longstanding activists that I interviewed said, ‘Icons? In my day we didn’t have icons, we had each other.’” And that rings true. The need for icons also suggests some terrifying loneliness that all this liberation we’ve undergone has yet to repair, has perhaps made worse. We hung together more when we knew we needed each other. Now, so full of borrowed hope, we’re hopelessly alone.
If the gays, adoring their celebrities, played a critical part in creating celebrity politics, it has spread beyond them. Oh, how it’s spread! True, no other social movement has succumbed quite so completely to the idea that celebrities in themselves can get you justice. Most movements simply use the famous for what they can extract. But the model’s seductive, corrupting. Women’s rights campaigns in America look increasingly like red-carpet photo ops: think of all those stars reading the Vagina Monologues. The more riddled with implausibilities the cause, the more likely it is to enlist celebrities for their power to blot out doubt. Nick Kristof’s neo-feminist “Half the Sky” brand – a book, a film, and a PR package that calls itself a “movement” — relies on Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, and Eva Mendes to help him raid brothels, humiliate sex workers, and buy women “freedom.” The paradigm of this is Kristof’s protégé, the anti-trafficking icon and master brothel-raider Somaly Mam, whose vanity foundation collected stars’ endorsements like Pokémon cards: Susan Sarandon, the inevitable Oprah, Ashley Judd and Ashlee Simpson, Katie Couric and Bill Maher. Mam was a money pit for “celebrity philanthropy.” Even after she was caught “publicizing her efforts with fabricated, lurid stories about herself and the girls in her shelters, which sex trafficking experts say dangerously misconstrued the problem at hand,” Marie Claire, the beauty magazine, took up the cudgel to defend her. Diane von Furstenburg stands by her. Image is all.
For all its US foundations, moreover, celebrity politics more and more goes global. The United Nations, since the 1950s, has called on “Goodwill Ambassadors,” famous people brought in to publicize its agencies’ work. But now the truculent stars insist on being more than spokesmen; they want credit for the work itself. The moon’s pale fire eclipses what used to be the sun. Angelia Jolie has graduated from “Goodwill Ambassador” to full-fledged “Special Envoy” on refugees; she speaks at UN meetings with a Method-acting look of expertise. Alain de Botton, a celebrity philosopher, defends the primacy of celebrity activism like hers: “Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions.” Jolie, he says, is one of these directions (along with Alain de Botton). She goes to Congo or Rwanda “to help people who are in great need. But more than anything, what she does is make Africa ‘sexy.'”
In 2012, on Human RIghts Day, the UN held a panel discussion on LGBT people’s human rights, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself attending. Three activists travelled to New York to speak: Olena Shevchenko, a feminist and queer rights defender in Ukraine, Blas Radi from Argentina who had helped draft the groundbreaking bill on gender identity there, and Gift Trapence, who had bravely defended imprisoned trans and gay people in Malawi. But the main speakers were two queer-friendly performers: Latino corazón-throb Ricky Martin, and the South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, both somewhat superannuated to say the least. (One nice thing about becoming a gay icon is that your healing power can bring your dead career back to life.) The officials there spent their time fawning over the stars. Ban praised Chaka Chaka as “the Queen of Equality.” The Dutch diplomat moderating the event called Ricky Martin “the King of Equality.” (Royalty and equality, of course, are not usually linked.) The people who had actually worked for human freedom were treated as second-class opening acts, their comments cut short and their accomplishments slighted in favor of a chanteuse and a former member of Menudo. The activists felt useless. The show said nothing substantial. The UN, stealing a bit of lunar light from the stellar celebrities, got the publicity it wanted. Everyone who mattered was happy.
Puzzle as you like over why celebrities dabble in humanitarianism – principles or PR? It can’t be grasped on the level of personalities. A Marxist could tell you what “celebrity activism” is, how the whole game works. It’s not a way of transforming society. It’s a way of transforming needs felt at the base into the abstract language of the superstructure: of turning anger and desperation into safe and culturally acceptable representations. The concrete, material needs that people and communities experience – for health care, jobs, access to medicines, protection from violence – are surrendered for immaterial gains on the level of “culture”: for “awareness,” publicity, “public consciousness,” “teachable moments,” “conversations.” The scraps of those needs that survive the translation are there for celebrities to turn into entertainment; your rage becomes a show, your hunger a commodity for somebody else to consume. The gains for the poor are purely ghostly, a few flickers of light. Those who get something tangible out of the game aren’t the communities, it’s the celebrities – and, overridingly, the corporate system within which they work, the machinery of capital that makes them. Profits flow up and only representations trickle down. And the nature of the system is that we are all trained to feel good about this; even the activists and malcontents among us.
This is simply how things are in the late-capitalist United States; everything material evaporates into its own signification. Or as Nancy Fraser would say, people who want redistribution of resources quickly learn to settle for symbolic “recognition,” for genuflections and formal respect, for the small satisfaction of seeing themselves in a movie — because it’s all they’ll get. There’s a limit to how much any activist can fight back against this system of images and fictions. We’re all convinced now that the only way to get any material needs met at all is to play the “cultural” game, to translate them into symbolic terms. You act nice, you tamp down your anger and your desires, and you recruit celebrities to “raise some awareness.” But we have never calculated, and may in fact be structurally unable to calculate, what we lose for a pottage of allegorical and evanescent gains: how many demands are abandoned, how many needs left unrecognized and unmet, in the distortions of this mistranslation.
Sometimes the fabric of these fictions ruptures. Of course revolutions don’t happen any more; except they do. I drive each day in Cairo through Midan Tahrir. It’s a mound of earth. The military government is digging up the central traffic island for some unexplained project, like a bomb shelter; they’ve already planted a gratuitously gigantic flagpole there, plinthed on a grotesque sarcophagal stele. It’s all to keep it off-limits, keep you from gathering, fence the people away because they fear the people; the leaders live in the lightning-fringed apocalyptic dread that opens Pilgrim’s Progress; they fear the wrath to come. The people still want bread. What happened once can happen again. And then there’s Baltimore. In Baltimore the cops kill someone, and you know your own life has a use. In Baltimore they no longer wait or want to be spoken for, they don’t believe that change comes stacked in theories like eggs in cartons, they don’t believe that justice trickles down from absconded gods in the airwaves or the clouds. They know reality isn’t raw material for reality TV. Hunger and anger won’t submit to being translated. The pain that’s actual and unseen has more power than all the images some satellite, lost in the smear of stars, can absorb.
But the rest of us survive differently. Gay politics always talked of honesty, authenticity; but what’s left? To be queer now is to be caught trying to assert your own reality in a world that is more and more unreal. You are driving down a long straight highway in a desert, through bright sun flecked with strange-angled shadows, past painted yellow mesas flat as stage sets. A wind from the obverse of the sky blows over you, and hardens the beads of sweat on your face to diamonds. The towering props that mimic stone tremble in the air like aspens. You think, I could live like this: and the wind uncombs your hair.
Note: at the time this piece was published, Caitlyn Jenner still asked to be called Bruce and to be described with masculine pronouns.