We're all suckers.
That's what dawned on me suddenly the other night. I'd just filed a column on how some social conservative writers are responding to Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. I hadn't given in to the sanctimony that's characterized so much of the commentary about Jenner and her transgender struggles, but I did try to explain why many liberals are inclined to refrain from judgment and even to celebrate this watershed moment in American culture.
And then it hit me: Like everyone who's talked, written, posted, and tweeted about this event, I've been taken in by a publicity stunt.
The guy who enriched himself by bringing our culture the sordid spectacle of the Kardashians is now a gal who's promoting a new reality show, and she's trying to ensure that it gets the highest ratings in the history of trash TV.
With the magazine cover inspiring a national conversation, a slew of banner headlines, and millions of people to follow Jenner's Twitter account in the first three days of its existence, I bet she succeeds.
But please, let's be honest about what this means. For one thing, and despite what a number of people appear to believe, it's not especially "brave." Or at least no more so than any celebrity publicizing personal tribulations in order to make money. Is it courageous when an actress who has just emerged from rehab after nearly killing herself with drinking and drugs gives an exclusive interview to a TV news magazine in the hopes of generating buzz about an upcoming movie release? Nah, it's just PR, ad copy in another form.
That's exactly what Jenner is giving us — and she's doing it masterfully, playing off America's addiction to what Tocqueville called the "perpetual utterance of self-applause." We love to feel good about ourselves. Conservatives satisfy the craving with gratuitous demonstrations of military prowess and unapologetic expressions of American exceptionalism. Liberals get it from grandiloquent displays of affirmation for the outsider — an affirmation that just so happens to demonstrate the affirming liberal's own moral superiority.
Gays and lesbians have been the outsiders of choice for a couple of decades. But now, as they finally merge with the mainstream, the transgendered look to be the next marginalized group in line for liberal protection from harm and defense against judgment and exclusion. And here comes Caitlyn, right on cue, ready and eager to pose as a pin-up poster girl for the cause. That her image will also serve to advance her career in exhibitionist television isn't so much a coincidence as the essence of what we've all experienced this week: the thoroughgoing commodification of one person's struggle with gender identity.
Remember that the next time you're tempted to moralize about Jenner — or find yourself forgetting the immortal wisdom of P.T. Barnum.