The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who gets to decide what it means to be a woman? Not Caitlyn Jenner, says Rose McGowan.

Caitlyn Jenner poses backstage at the 2015 Glamour Women of the Year Awards on Nov. 9. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Glamour)

If you ask actress Rose McGowan, Caitlyn Jenner is going about the business of being a high-profile woman all wrong.

Recently Glamour magazine fêted a group of women, including Jenner, with its Women of the Year awards. The list included Reese Witherspoon, Misty Copeland, Victoria Beckham, Cecile Richards, the U.S. women’s national soccer team, and Moira Smith, a New York City police officer who was killed on 9/11.

In an interview backstage, Buzzfeed asked Jenner, “What’s the hardest part for you about being a woman?”

“The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” Jenner responded. “It’s always that way; I never thought it would come to this. I had really no sense of style. Everyone around me in my family had the sense of style — I learned as much as I possibly could. But, it’s more than that. I’m kind of at this point in my life where I’m trying to figure this womanhood thing out. It is more than hair, makeup, clothes, all that kind of stuff. There’s an element here, that I’m still kind of searching for. And I think that’ll take a while. Because I think as far as gender, we’re all on a journey. We’re all learning and growing about ourselves. And I feel the same way.”

In since-deleted response posted to Facebook on Monday, McGowan excoriated Jenner for not taking womanhood more seriously:

“Caitlyn Jenner you do not understand what being a woman is about at all. You want to be a woman and stand with us — well learn us. We are more than deciding what to wear. We are more than the stereotypes foisted upon us by people like you. You’re a woman now? Well f—ing learn that we have had a VERY different experience than your life of male privilege.
Woman of the year? No, not until you wake up and join the fight. Being a woman comes with a lot of baggage. The weight of unequal history. You’d do well to learn it. You’d do well to wake up. Woman of the year? Not by a long f—ing shot.”

McGowan followed her words with memes of women who had been beaten, raped or otherwise abused. All the captions on the images had the same quote, attributed to Jenner: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”

Moira’s widower, James Smith, announced on Facebook on Thursday via an open letter to Glamour editor Cindi Leive that he would be returning the award because he did not want his late wife honored in the same group as Jenner. Wrote Smith:

“I find it insulting to Moira Smith’s memory, and the memory of other heroic women who have earned this award. Was there no woman in America, or the rest of the world, more deserving than this man?
… I can only guess that this was a publicity stunt meant to resuscitate a dying medium. After discussing this slap in the face to the memory of our Hero with my family, I have decided to return Moira’s award to Glamour magazine.”

Critics labeled both McGowan’s and Smith’s words as transphobic. Why?

With Smith, it’s fairly obvious: He called Jenner a man, and his objection to his wife’s award was squarely directed at Glamour’s decision to honor both Moira and Jenner as women. He made it clear he thought this was a sham, and that he found it insulting to his wife. McGowan’s words are slightly trickier to parse.

[Caitlyn Jenner is the spokesperson the LGBT community has, but is she the one it wants?]

McGowan was treating womanhood as a club to which Jenner only recently gained entry. “Learn us” she instructs Jenner, reinforcing the narrative that Jenner only recently became a woman this year, when that’s not the case. In her Vanity Fair cover story, Jenner made it clear that she who knew she was female for decades, but only recently was able to affirm her gender.

McGowan’s statements are further complicated because she delivered them trussed in feminist rhetoric, taking it upon herself to educate Jenner that being a woman comes with “the weight of unequal history.” Elements of McGowan’s argument echoed those expressed last month by famed feminist Germaine Greer. When asked about Glamour honoring Jenner, Greer told BBC’s “Newsnight,” “I think misogyny plays a really big part in all of this, that a man who goes to these lengths to become a woman will be a better woman than someone who is just born a woman.”

[Laverne Cox on Caitlyn Jenner: ‘What I think is most beautiful about her is her heart’]

When challenged online about her statement, Greer shot back, “Just because you lop off your d— and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a f—ing woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a f—ing cocker spaniel.

“I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d— chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”

Writer Elinor Burkett was also unwilling to relinquish a claim to gender staked in anatomy and threats to bodily safety, ignoring the tremendous threat of violence that many transwomen face, even in the perceived safety of a city like San Francisco. She wrote in the opinion pages of the New York Times:

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. [Larry] Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.
Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

What’s common to McGowan, Greer and Burkett is a refusal to acknowledge that for much of her life, Jenner was masking her true self. Instead, they all treat her current gender presentation as gender Kabuki.

[Caitlyn Jenner: ‘I’m not doing this so I can hit it off the women’s tee’]

Caitlyn Jenner is a woman. Does Jenner have any less of a right to be utterly superficial than her ex-wife, children or step-children simply because of the anatomy she had when she was born?

“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway came to Jenner’s defense in a conversation with HuffPost Live. “Some trans women are really femme, some trans women are really butch,” Soloway said. “Everybody’s different, and Caitlyn happens to be from a family — I’m a huge Kardashians fan — everybody in that family talks about hair and makeup and clothes all the time. It’s their hobby to look good, so that’s where Caitlyn comes from. Whether or not she has a right to do that — of course she has a right to do that. She’s a woman. Every woman has a right to be as femme or as not femme as they wish to be. And it’s absolutely awesome that Glamour has honored her.”

[‘Orange is the New Black’ actress withdraws from festival due to exclusion of trans women]

Monday afternoon, McGowan posted a response to Twitter after critics accused her of being transphobic:

There’s a second element at work here, too, that has nothing to do with transmisogyny or transphobia: Both McGowan and Smith chose to deliver their messages via public Facebook posts.

[Lexical growing pains, or hollow justifications for using a slur? From ‘queer’ to ‘tranny.’]

McGowan deliberately elected to publicly upbraid Jenner for what she perceived as Jenner’s failings as a public figure. Smith did the same to Lieve and Glamour, scolding them for somehow insulting the memory of his wife.

“It’s sad,” Soloway told HuffPost Live. “There’s this feeling of the binary — this kind of either/or — that a lot of people get really attached to, and a lot of people are powered by anger and looking for a reason to be angry. And if he’s wanting the kind of attention around giving [his] wife’s award back, it sounds like he’s probably just really wanting to express anger to the world.”

What precisely do open letters accomplish? Generally, they function as a public performance of sanctimony, drawing more attention to the author than to whomever he or she may have in their crosshairs. In McGowan’s case, publicly policing Jenner for not being a woman appears to burnish McGowan’s reputation as a feminist rebel and truth-teller who dares to call out Hollywood sexism.

But if McGowan truly believes that Jenner is misusing her platform, what good does public shaming do? How likely is it that Jenner will be receptive? And what message does it send to other trans women about speaking publicly about their personal experiences with gender and all that the performance of gender entails?