Monday, August 31, 2015

Call me Caitlyn this Halloween: Transgender Costumes

“To make a costume out of a marginalized identity reduces that person and community 
to a stereotype 
for privileged people to abuse” 

The following is part of an ongoing analysis
of transgender and the new authentic
as trans bodies are reproduced for profit

Humor as Oppression

"Be an advocate for the liberal agenda in this Unisex Miss-ter Olympic Wig!" announces AnyTimeCostumes in the description of their Caitlyn Jenner costume prop. "If you cant identify as a male, throw on this brunet wig that offers a modern style and straight cut. Complete your costume by ordering a medal that shows what used to be of the infamous Bruce Jenner." This sort of text is evidence of a half-sincere warning I give about the culling of overt trans-phobia. In a world where racists, sexists, homophobes, and trans-phobes learns the dance of being politically correct, their hatred and sedition remains. Many of us experience the systematic and even intentional oppression of certain groups that are allowed to perpetuate because they no longer use their tell-tale language. Some of us may long for days in which hate groups where out and open about their violent agenda. What AnyTimeCostumes states clearly here about how the impersonation of Caitlyn Jenner on halloween is an evident political statement and rhetorical attack against social justice is nonetheless affirmed when such declarations are not made. There may be some mistake between promoting the fame or infamy of a marginalized group, but AnyTimeCostumes knows what they are doing when they promote their satirical Caitlyn Jenner (or rather "Bruce Jenner") costumes. They know humor can be a weapon.

"You probably won't break any Twitter records when you wear this outfit like Caitlyn did when she first made her account, but you'll be sure to get a few laughs out of your friends,” writes  AnyTimeCostumes in the description to their full Caitlyn Jenner costume. That the wearers of a Caitlyn Jenner costume might want to break Twitter records is a sign but can't that pictures of the farcical imitation of a trans woman is meant to be broadcast. Wearing the costume makes a political statement and statements are meant to be shared and enact change. In this case,  AnyTimeCostumes knows that twitter will not consent at large to the political oppression being exposed nor will it effect great immediate change in the trajectory of legal and cultural progress. Yet the rhetorical attack may still extend support and receive affirmation from like-minded opponents to transgender rights; or, more importantly, those who are on the fence because of a lack of knowledge or interest. In other words, AnyTimeCostumes is saying: if you can't beat them, at least you can make fun of them. In a sense, the creation of a Caitlyn Jenner costume as a tool for promoting mockery and oppression is a sign that Trans Rights are gaining enough power to be a publicly recognized target and threat. Humor and parody is the powerful weapon of the weak. It is a sign of weakness because the statements that ring with sincere aggression cannot be candidly uttered or taken for granted. It is still a sign of power, however, because it assumes a sympathetic audience who will recognize and rise to the flag of opposition that is being waved.

For these reasons and more, transgender rights activists and allies are opposing the buying and selling of Caitlyn Jenner parody costumes. As part of this push for companies such as SpiritHalloween to pull the oppressive costumes from their stock, Addison Vincent lead a petition on that has garnered significant support with over 10,000 co-signatories. “To make a costume out of a marginalized identity reduces that person and community to a stereotype for privileged people to abuse,” writes Vincent in the petition. As will be explored further in the next section, the power and effect of speech can change significantly depending on the speaker. If the promotional images and descriptions of the costumes are to be followed, then privileged white cis-gender males across the country would be encouraged to take shots against a socially vulnerable group just as they are making progress towards social justice. Indeed, the abuse of such power dynamics has become evident to many who have joined in the petition. "I'm signing," writes one supporter, "because this costume mocks the validity of a transgender's identity, implying a man wearing a dress is the same as a person dressing to their comfort and identity." Any message, especially clothing, is defined by its context. Cisgender men do not have to intend an attack on the trans community for their costume to suggest an oppressive message. This may mean that the powerful should not feel free to "just have fun" and companies need to consider something other than profit when that fun or profit causes further oppression on an already marginalized group. This is not necessarily a call for censorship but a call for responsibility from those in positions of power. As a representative of GLAAD writes, "Companies should think twice before seeking to profit from mocking trans women."

There are those who would defend this mockery as an expression of free speech, expressing the real life sentiments being mocked in a recent article on The Onion “Once again, political correctness is threatening my freedom to mock disenfranchised minorities.” But let us consider why we protect free speech. The legal right parody is not secured because it is fun and harmless. No, we preserve the freedom of speech because speech is powerful. If speech was not powerful there would be no reason to silence it or defend it. This is why the defense of free speech is not enacted by passively consuming oppressive rhetoric, because this does not show respect to the power of language. Rather, opposing violent humor and parody is not the censorship of free speech but rather a sign of respect for speech. Opposing the wearing, selling, and promoting of oppressive humor such as the Caitlyn Jenner costume sends the statement: yes, we should honor our freedom of speech by using that speech responsibly. There is a difference between being silenced by imprisonment for speaking out and being called out for promoting abusive and oppressive discourses. Companies like SpiritHalloween maintain every legal right to sell the Caitlyn Jenner costume. The outcry against the selling of such a tool for parody was not an attack by or through the government and thus no threat to freedom of speech. As such, there is nothing heroic about SpiritHalloween announcing that they will continue to sell the costume and "will be available in stores in late September," despite public demands not to profit from and promote this tool for oppression. Moving forward after being informed of the damage their business practice may enact on the trans community is not a defense of free speech (they remain legally allowed to act and also not to act in either case) but rather this is an abuse of free speech.

Caitlyn Jenner as a Pinata for the public
hanging and beating of a trans person in effigy

Imitation as Tribute

Despite being called out for the oppressive speech being promoted by the marketing of Caitlyn Jenner costumes, has remained firm on selling the product even as they change the image and tone of their sales strategy. "At Spirit Halloween, we create a wide range of costumes that are often based on celebrities, public figures, heroes and superheroes. Caitlyn Jenner is all of the above and our Caitlyn-inspired costume reflects just that,” said a representative of the company in an attempt to reframe the use of the costume from mockery to celebration. Indeed, being regarded as a "hero" or a "celebrity" is better and more accurate than being sold as "infamous" or "an advocate for the liberal agenda" (it's important to note that Caitlyn Jenner remains a stalwart Republican). “Caitlyn Jenner has proven to be the most important real-life superhero of the year, and Spirit Halloween is proud to carry the costume that celebrates her,” continues the company rep. Certainly, SpiritHalloween has heard the criticisms and has answered with the plea that they mean well. As has been noted, however, intent is not as important in considering the ethics of political speech as effect. Pride and celebrations can be just as damaging as intentional attacks, or worse when the rhetoric of good intentions cover over actual negative effects. Indeed, some, such as Vincent Villano, the spokesman for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, claim  "There's no tasteful way to 'celebrate' Caitlyn Jenner or respect transgender people this way on the one night of the year when people use their most twisted imaginations to pretend to be villains and monsters." Once again, when the power of speech is concerned, context and effect matter more than intent in determining significance.

Beyond the new spin that SpiritHalloween gave to the description and advertising of the Caitlyn Jenner costume, changing the model in the picture is far more effective in redirecting the potential effects of selling such a product. While the original picture that had been circulating promoting the costume portrayed a cis-gender male with evident body and facial hair, the model was later changed to a beautiful cis-gender woman. After the criticisms, SpiritHalloween was active in trying to stress that the latter rather the former would be the version promoted and sold in the stores (although it would be sold by other sites, such as AnyTimeCostumes). This is critical shift because the change in the model embodying the message changes its meaning. The cisgender male suggests that a trans woman is nothing more than a man in drag. On Twitter, @Smeckler put forth this argument, "How is a Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costume degrading? That's exactly what it she is isn't it? Biologically a man changed to look like a woman." This model has been more strongly associated with the derisive and satirical descriptions of the costume because it suggests that the assertion of trans feminine identity is bound to fail or inherently false. The second model, the cis-gender woman, however, suggests a message of success. This is both an ontological statement about womanhood as well as a political statement. The image suggests that a cis-gender woman can identify trans woman. The costume turns from a message of difference and subjective into a tool for alliance and support.

The change in the model suggests a change in the suggested use of the costume. While cis-gender men remain legally free to purchase and wear a Caityln Jenner costume, this may not be the most ethical choice. The masculine embodiment of the wearer donning the costume in jest will continue to undercut the legitimacy of trans political messages. The statement "as with me, so with her" (but not its inverse) is hard to escape. This is even more the case, if the man makes an effort to underline an ironic distance between them and the trans woman they are representing by emphasizing male markers. In the case of an intentionally negative or humorous portrayal, a cis-gender man is asserting his difference, power, and superiority. The message is, "look what I can do to her image." The assertion of an "I" an "thou" (or "her) demonstrates the danger of ironic and sincere performance. The ironic wearer enters into the trans experience and no matter the destruction or pleasure he derives from occupying the trans position, he is free to step back out of that position with impunity. Cis-gender women too can enact this rhetorical attack on trans women by asserting a fundamental difference between the cis-wearer and trans-worn. Through farce, he (or she) retains his "cis-gender" privilege even as he ironically appropriates the trans voice and image; a continuation of an already lopsided power dynamic in a society that already privileges the voice of cis-gender persons over that of trans people; suggesting that while trans women fail to imitate (as though imitation were the goal) cis-gender embodiment, a cis person can do what they can't by being a tourist through the experience of an other that can't cross back over the divide that the cis-performers continue to police.

Within this distinction, however, there remains the possibility for cis-gender men (as well as cis-gender women) to honor trans women through the costume. This potential exists in an culturally transgressive "over-identification" with the trans subject, there by extending an invitation begun with the statement "as with me, so with her" to include the inverse, "as with her, so with me." By working to emphasize the "thou" (or "her") of the trans subject, rather the "I," the cis-gender male puts the trans subject momentarily above or in front of himself. He subverts his own essential cis-gender masculinity by bringing his virtual trans feminine traits to the forefront, thereby allowing himself to temporarily share the vulnerability and beauty of the trans subject. As has been suggested, cis-gender women may come closer to the trans-woman experience by already sharing and affirming a common social position as women. The power of irony is distance and safety, thus also its use in oppressive humor. The power of sincerity is its intimacy and vulnerability, opening the potential to affirm solidarity and honor upon the subject of imitation.

The choice of a cis-man or a cis-woman to model the costume of a trans woman is a clear rhetorical statement that supports real world political oppression or affirmation

Authenticity as Capital

Among what has been said here or in the media, there remains the unthought possibility that the targeted audience of a trans woman costume should be other trans women. Indeed, the trans community might be the most ethical addressee for the promotions to reach. By deeming to consider trans persons as constituting a significant demographic, in the process of advertising the companies affirms and furthers the visibility and recognizing the financial and social capital that the trans community is gaining. In this way, society can say to the trans community, "you have heroes worth celebrating." This, above the imitation of cis-gender men and women, affirms a "thou" above the "I." It honors not only a trans individual that can be turned into a product for consumption, but respects the trans community as possessing resources and intimacies with powerful figures that are beyond the ability of cis-men and women to emulate or appropriate. By not crossing a boundary that they can cross only at the risk of sending damaging messages, cis-gender men and women can affirm that they build up for the trans community a reserve of social capital already latent in the creation of a trans woman costume: authenticity.

Authenticity is a social construct that is lately being ascribed in new ways to the transgender community. Previously, I have examined this phenomenon in relation to the marketing and selling of "authentically real" transgender sex dolls. In this case, authenticity is not what the costume delivers but what its imitation depends on for a reference. Critics of the costume have been quick to note how the ascendance of transgender from the designation of being itself an imitation of cisgender male and females into an authentic category of its own is still precarious. "Trans is not a costume," defends Addison Vincent. "Even though Caitlyn is a public figure and I could understand someone wanting to celebrate her as a hero and as a public figure, this could definitely take on a transphobic vibe.” The transphobic mockery of Caitlyn Jenner tries to reduce transgender to a category of failed artifice, prompting trans allies to insist on the authenticity of trans bodies that can be put in real danger due to such messages. "When transgender women step out into the world as their authentic selves," says a representative of GLAAD. "They aren't wearing a costume." As part of the response that the costume causes is the assertion of a difference among those designated as not wearing costumes. Indeed, the work of the former propels the latter. If buyers either wear the costume as a sign of parody or tribute, nonetheless they presuppose in their emulation an authentic trans signified.

In the end, regardless of positive or negative intent, transgender may be deemed more authentically real because of the promotion of imitations and representations. Yet this authenticity, as has been noted in the case of transgender sex toys, remains largely tied to money. The concept of an authentic article is that article can be valued and sold at a higher quality than supposed imitations. In a rhetorical sense, the control over the discourse on transgender constitutes the social capital generated by the "Call Me Caitlyn" costumes. At the same time, these costumes produce financial capital. At this point, the significant problem of appropriation must be repeated. The makers, sellers, and buyers of the costume are largely a non-transgender cis-gender community. That means that while Caitlyn Jenner and the trans community are being reconstructed as bestowing an authentic transgender essence to certain products, this capital is being generated for non-transgender parties. In short, the transgender community is being used to make money that we are not receiving. Even if Caitlyn Jenner received a piece of the money, her politics and financial security is such that she is largely unaffected by the income or lack of it. The trans people that may be the most hurt by the effects of promoting and selling such a transgender costume are not in any way compensated. As a whole, because of a history and current environment where residential, medical, professional, and social security is withheld or precarious for most trans persons, their efforts to define themselves as community worthy of "authentic" status is not rewarded but rather appropriated by those who neither share nor support this vulnerable population. It is those who did not do the work (or even actively opposed it) but show up at the end to take the credit and money that enact appropriation - and that is what this is - an act that is akin to stealing the social and financial capital of the trans community.

What then is the alternative to appropriating trans culture by buying a "Call Me Caitlyn" costume this halloween? Simple: rather than give money to a cisgender corporation as they promote a practice that rhetorically leans towards discrediting the transgender movement, instead donate or buy the products of companies and advocacy groups in the trans community. The best way to honor a trans persons is to send money to trans organizations rather than to dubious cisgender groups looking to buy and sell our image for a quick dollar. Right now, trans lead organizations are still struggling to get a foot hold and trans inclusive organizations largely direct funding to other projects. The trans movement does not need authenticity or imitation so much as it needs the legitimacy and force that money provides. The more money that goes to trans organizations and companies the more donors see them as viable investments. Your money speaks, so know what it is saying and who it is giving a voice. Looking for good places to start? Instead of SpiritHalloween or AnyTimeCostumes, try donating to: the Transgender Law Center (a organization in the profession of "Making Authentic Lives Possible"), the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Trans People of Color Coalition, the Transgender American Veterans Association, and Trans Tech Social Enterprises

For more on appropriation 
and capitalization of transgender:


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