Friday, July 17, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner, the ESPYs, and Narcissism

Curmie has been reading a lot of late about Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance speech (transcript here) of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs. It was indeed a pretty impressive piece of rhetoric, highlighted by this already much-quoted sequence:
If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead, because the reality is I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there who are coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.
That’s great stuff, and might even do some good.

It is beyond question that Jenner has shown courage throughout the transitioning process, and has given some comfort, intentionally or otherwise, for others in the trans community. Curmie is by no means an expert in such matters, but he does have a former student and a family member who have transitioned (in opposite directions, as it happens), so he isn’t quite as ignorant as he was even five years ago.

Here's Arthur Ashe, because
Curmie is tired of seeing photos of Caitlyn Jenner.
Does Ms. Jenner “deserve” the Arthur Ashe Award? Is her particular brand of courage more significant than that of dozens of other athletes, past and present, in facing down disease, political oppression, or any of a host of –isms and –phobias that repress the human spirit? 

Curmie doubts it, and has long suspected that the award is more about calling attention to the ESPYs (especially this year, when the program migrated from ESPN cable to the parent company, ABC) than to honoring the recipient. And controversy does build ratings, after all. Sports columnists from Bob Costas to Frank Deford have raised eyebrows at the selection. The name of Lauren Hill, who played two basketball games for Division III Mount St. Joseph before succumbing to inoperable brain cancer—oh, and by the way, raised over $1.5 million for cancer research in the process—was one name floated about for the honor. (Hill did posthumously receive “Best Moment” recognition, a sort of Miss Congeniality award, at the ESPYs.)

Moreover, there’s something a little unsettling about propping up Jenner as a role model for a transition that took place only decades after she presumably understood her real identity. Please forgive Curmie a little skepticism at the notion that the tribulations associated with these changes aren’t eased a little by worldwide fame and a fortune probably north of $100 million. That’s a little different situation from Joe at the carwash who wants to come out as Jo.

Still, in a world in which transgender people are disproportionately victims of violence, and disproportionately prone to suicide, there is good to be had from the publicity surrounding Jenner’s selection. If even a handful of those kids struggling with their identity think they might have an advocate, good. And if even a handful of judgmental people pause and take a single step towards acceptance of and respect for those other than themselves, that’s good, too.


There were those who argued vehemently that Jenner should have been eliminated from consideration based on that fatal traffic accident in February. As the investigation continues, a few things have become clear. First, the crash was unquestionably his (he was still Bruce, then) fault. Second, there seems to be no evidence that Jenner was chemically impaired, speeding, or talking or texting (any of which might lead to a felony charge under the circumstances). Rather, police are saying he was simply driving ”HUA” (head up ass). Third, Jenner’s celebrity status undeniably led to a kid gloves approach by local authorities, not to mention the press. “Bruce Jenner Severely Traumatized After Fatal Car Crash” read one headline. Curmie suspects that Kim Howe, who died as a result of Jenner’s negligence, might be unimpressed at his (now, her) suffering. Fourth, two lawsuits are currently pending against Jenner, at least one of which asserts that she still refuses to accept responsibility for the wreck. Here’s Jessica Steindorff, the driver of the Prius involved in the accident:
I find it difficult to understand how the culture we live in can honor a person who is responsible for taking a life and injuring several others with both an award and a reality show. For an individual who is such a positive role model in many aspects of her life, Caitlyn has failed to do the right thing and take responsibility for her actions.
There are lots of responses here—not least of them that the notoriety that allows Jenner to get preferential treatment in some ways also attracts attention from those who want to benefit—in terms of money, publicity, whatever—on a celebrity’s vulnerability. Would Steindorff have sued you or me, Gentle Reader? Perhaps more readily. Perhaps not at all.

Moreover, people are often masses of contradiction; the good and bad angels of our beings are often both loudly heard: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave-owners. That doesn’t make their place in the American pantheon any less secure; it merely reminds us of the mortal fallibility of us all. Bill Cosby made us laugh, and broke new ground for African-American entertainers; he is also a serial rapist. In Curmie’s field, Dion Boucicault was one of the most significant proponents of copyright law… and one of the most egregious plagiarists in history.

So the fact that Bruce/Caitlin Jenner had a moment’s breach of responsibility and is, perhaps under legal advice, reluctant to claim agency with respect to those actions does not present a strong case against her receiving the Arthur Ashe award. But now comes what to me is a more damning revelation, published in the UK’s Daily Mail, that the award was the product of a quid pro quo arrangement which granted the splashy April coming-out party to Diane Sawyer of ABC.

Naturally, ABC denies the linkage, and let’s just say that the Daily Mail is not the most reputable of all news sources, nor is “reports have emerged” the most compelling of sourcing. But the timing of the award announcement and the fact that NBC had previously been regarded as the frontrunner to get the big Jenner interview (largely because E! Entertainment, which will air the upcoming reality show “I Am Cait,” is an NBC affiliate) make the allegation more than a little plausible.

All of this devalues an award which already was suffering from a crisis of integrity. One needn’t be as cynical as Curmie to suspect that the Arthur Ashe award was a mere commodity to be used as a bargaining chip by a mercenary network looking to cut a deal with a narcissistic former athlete. Indeed, whereas it’s remotely possible that the award selection was on the up-and-up, Curmie would bet the ranch that this deal was as crooked as the proverbial dog’s hind leg.

So whereas Curmie is supportive of Caitlin Jenner’s independence and cognizant of the risks she took to get there, he’s not at all thrilled at the notion of honoring an attention whore. Caitlin Jenner, like Lance Armstrong before her, is philanthropic and inspirational precisely up to the point at which being so ceases to accrue to her personal benefit. There are a host of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender role models in the world. Caitlyn Jenner does not appear to be among them.

NOTE: Curmie was about 3/4 done with this piece when his netpal Jack Marshall posted on this topic. You can read his comments here.

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