Several people have asked me what I think about the Bruce Jenner situation. “Situation” may seem like an odd word choice here, but that’s what it is: it is certainly more than just what he has chosen to do with the last portion of his life. It is a situation; a moment in time in which we have an opportunity to see “what we’re made of” as a culture. And what it reveals is interesting on a lot of levels.
I’m not going to comment directly on Bruce Jenner’s decision to take drastic steps to be like a woman. This has been covered well in many places, no matter where you happen to find yourself in regard to his decision. If you are looking for some good commentaries on it, I recommend Matt Fradd’s straightforward piece (for which critics decided to crash his website for a time) and Matt Walsh’s piece, especially as how this version of transgenderism should make all actual women sit up and take notice.
Actually, before I continue, I can’t resist just stating the objective truth: Bruce Jenner (or whatever name he chooses to call himself) is still a man, no matter what he has done in terms of dress, makeup, cosmetic surgery, hormonal adjustment, or even internal reconstructive surgery. He remains a man biologically, and I assert that he also remains “male,” for those who want to insist on a (wholly made up) absolute divide between the categories of “sex” and “gender.” There are elements of his presentation and attitude that are “female,” such as his manner of dress and behavior perhaps, and his hormones are now confused by pharmaceutical adjustment, but in no objective way beyond his own self-understanding is he female. This is not just the case with Jenner; this is the case for all persons who take active steps towards “transition.”
Transgenderism is a complicated phenomenon, and even though I have no problem stating that human beings are born specifically men or women, the experiences of people who experience gender dysphoria are no doubt extraordinarily difficult. It is important that we hear their stories, not in order to justify their incorrect assumptions about themselves, but so that we might share with them the love due to all human beings. The pastoral challenge of transgenderism is to find the mean between the extremes of unconditional acceptance of their poor choices and erroneous perspectives on the one hand, and a mocking disdain or dismissal of their experiences on the other.
Aside from the specific instance of this “celebrity” undergoing this transformation (and showing it in an embarrassing display on a magazine cover), what is more interesting to me is what this says about our culture. There is no question that we have profound misunderstandings about the meaning of sex in our culture and much more still needs to be said about this (and with the Synod this fall, there will be no shortage of commentary on it). But the rise in our culture’s open acceptance of transgenderism speaks to me not only about a misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of sex, not only about the logical consequences of radical illogical subjectivity, but also something more.
A number of different studies consistently reveal that the incidence of male-to-female (MTF) transgenderism outnumbers female-to-male (FTM) by anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1. As some of this data is obtained from statistics regarding so-called “reassignment” surgery, and MTF surgery is easier, some conclude that this disparity is irrelevant. But other studies reveal that this is the case even apart from reassignment. Many reasons are offered to explain this, but I think there is one that is often overlooked: we are still experiencing a crisis of masculinity in our culture.
Back in the 1990s, there was a recognition that, with the rise of certain strands of feminism, the distinct experiences of men were being lost. In response to woman being the forgotten “other” in contrast to man, a full 180 degree shift had occurred (at least in some quarters) in which men were understood as little more than “everything bad.” This attitude is still around, even if it is not a fair representation of authentic feminism. As a response, the men’s movement began, starting with Robert Bly’s Iron John and subsequently supported by a number of excellent writers.
The movement strove to find a distinctly masculine voice for the fears and challenges of being human. Despite all the tough guy imagery and rhetoric of so much of modern Western culture, men learned to express their doubts and fears, especially their insecurities about their roles in their families and jobs. Men learned to better express themselves not in opposition to women, but in an authentic, complementary masculine voice, for the betterment of relationships between men and women overall.
Like many good movements, it was not immune to parody and the image of a group of middle-aged men sitting shirtless around a fire in the woods, beating on a drum while they cry on each other’s shoulders became a common representation of the movement in sitcoms. By the early 2000s, the movement lost its moment in the fast-paced pop culture spotlight and now, when it’s not the subject of a joke, it is forgotten.
The issues brought up by the men’s movement haven’t gone away. I would argue that it is more difficult to ascertain an authentic masculinity now than it was 20 years ago. And the reason for this difficulty can be laid squarely at the feet of our pop culture idols. The image of the idiotic dad, the sexual predator, the emotionally dead power-player, and the violent gangster are all alive and well and often celebrated in our most successful TV shows and movies. Many men find themselves confused about how they are “supposed” to act, especially in relation to women, and so many retreat to either acting as the testosterone-fueled idiots they are expected to be or timid and afraid to say the wrong thing at the risk of causing offense.
If men don’t know how to actually be men, real men, how can we expect for marriage to make sense? Why should we expect to see feminism actually bear meaningful fruit in our society? And apropos to current events, why should we be surprised that a man who has endured seven years of televised nonsense surrounded by four of the most self-absorbed women the world has ever seen say finally, “Hi, I’m Caitlyn”?
Women’s issues are important to the future of the Church and the world. But so are men’s issues. And as long as we refuse to see that there are important, essential differences between the two that make us better when we recognize them, we can’t hope to see the Kingdom among us.
Towards this end, I invoke nothing less than the greatest man ever, Jesus of Nazareth, who conveniently also happens to be the God who spins planets off his fingertips, in communion with the whole Church Triumphant, the greatest collection of men and women the world has ever known, with the greatest woman at the head of the charge. Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us! Immacuate Heart of Mary, pray for us! All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!