(Photo: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair)
Maybe you consider Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce) a bona fide national hero for her courageous decision to become who she believes in her heart she truly is. Maybe you consider her nothing more than a "him" in surgically and hormonally engineered drag. Admittedly only one of these two positions could be considered accepting and sensitive to transgender people and the struggles they face in our society, but this is America and you're always entitled to your opinions and to voice them.
In between these two ends of the spectrum, however, there's a gray area full of people who are either legitimately ambivalent to the official coming out of Caitlyn Jenner or simply unaware how to respond to the sudden reintroduction of a person who's been a cultural fixture for 40 years as an entirely new gender. It's easy to say that the only proper response is to celebrate that person's new form and it's true that whoever someone chooses to be is who they choose to be -- it negatively impacts no one outside of maybe family and friends who might have difficulty getting accustomed to the transformation -- but when that someone is a beloved public figure it's understandable that mixed emotions might conflict with what's generally considered the proper way to respond to the change.
Well, you'd think it would be understandable. Unfortunately, as we know by now, any deviation from the accepted orthodoxy of those who practice liberalism far better than you is a quick way to earn you a good internet shaming these days.
Look, it's one thing when we're talking about the Neanderthals over at Fox News. Their response will always be cringe-inducing to something like this, as it was yesterday when Fox Business's own reactionary Poppin' Fresh Neil Cavuto repeatedly mocked Jenner during a segment on the Vanity Fair cover that marked her coming out. Cavuto could barely contain his laughter as the story was read and he followed the whole thing up by introducing his next guest, Charles Payne, as "Charlene Payne" to guffaws from the studio and with the brief aside, "Rome. Final days. But that's fine." Because apparently Bruce Jenner making the personal choice to become Caitlyn Jenner is more a threat to America than, say, the idea of presidential candidate Donald Trump (who would love to tell you all about his Gucci store). Cavuto deserves every bit of derision being heaped his way right now from enlightened society because he's proven time and again that he's a narrow-minded douchebag working for a network that's filled to the brim with narrow-minded douchebags.
But then you have Drake Bell, a former Nickelodeon star who made the unconscionable mistake of responding to news of the Vanity Fair cover with one line that's probably going to haunt him for the rest of his life. He tweeted out simply, "Sorry... Still calling you Bruce." Despite deleting the tweet, Bell's ill-advised comment immediately earned him the wrath of half the internet as well as stories in USA Today and US Weekly, the latter of which labeled him "transphobic." He tried to backpedal, saying that his point was that he wasn't willing to simply set aside "Bruce Jenner's" legacy as an athlete. When that didn't work, he responded with a terse, "Calm down, children." Maybe you really do believe that five words on Twitter constitutes a capital crime, but if you have anything approaching an actual life it should be really tough to work up a lot of indignation toward a kid who's best known for a shitty show like Drake & Josh.
Bell doesn't make public policy and he isn't a thought leader who regularly presents news and information to the country. He's an entertainer -- nothing more. Maybe what he said right off the bat wasn't entirely indicative of progressive thinking, but that final retort was still pretty much on the money.
"Calm down, children," would be the perfect response to Colin Gorenstein over at Salon, who seems to think that it's offensive to even grapple publicly with what Caitlyn Jenner means to someone who grew up knowing only Bruce. During a segment this morning on CNN, anchor Carol Costello lamented that, as someone who remembers very well the 1976 Olympics and Jenner's performance in them, she felt "a bit of sadness" that she would never again see Jenner as the physical embodiment of that person. Never mind that the guest Costello was interviewing, E! reporter Ken Baker, had just made the exact same point about how a certain generation was going to have a more difficult time coming to terms with the change -- Gorenstein couldn't help tearing into Costello for her mixed emotions. "Wow, Jenner definitely should have checked in with Costello and the CNN team before deciding to pursue an honest and fulfilling life, huh?" he wrote. No, Colin, you should've considered the context and tone of Costello's comments before deciding to be a smug little asshole.
In the coming days there are going to be plenty of people who respond horribly to the public ascendence of Caitlyn Jenner. There already have been, although scanning Twitter for ignorance to prove this point is a cheat; you can always find idiots willing to confirm your worst suspicions about society -- no matter what those suspicions happen to be -- by random tweet-wrangling. It's relatively easy to determine, however, those who legitimately have issues with transgender people and those who are simply experiencing mixed emotions as they process the transformation of this specific person, as this specific person happens to be someone embraced by the public in such a unique way. Yes, you can argue that it's a brave new world when someone who was known for years as the embodiment of American masculinity and athleticism now reappears as precisely the "opposite." But that brave new world is going to scare some people. If they're dicks about it, then all bets are off. But if they merely express circumspection, maybe give them a hand to hold rather than a closed fist.
It took Jenner decades to come to terms with who she is to the point where she was willing to make a decision to do something about it -- to live her life genuinely. It's not unreasonable to expect some of her long-term admirers to take more than a couple of hours to process the result of that decision.