When Caitlyn Came to Penn

Caitlyn – formerly Bruce – Jenner is always a bit of a media spectacle, and it comes as no surprise that the former athlete and reality TV star drew hundreds of students during a Wednesday evening talk at Penn’s Irvine Auditorium.

The student-run Social Planning and Events Committee (SPEC) announcement that Jenner had been invited to campus drew the both fervor and confusion of a student population that has much to say and little to do. Some were simply excited to see a celebrity in person, while others hoped to use the event as a springboard for discussions on gender and sexuality (not that campus isn’t already inundated with that exact dialogue). Apparently forgetting that the LGTBQ catch-all incorporates, by definition, a wide range of human experiences and philosophies, representatives of Penn’s non-cisgender community claimed that the invitee did “such a terrible job of representing the opinions and experiences of trans people all over not just Penn’s campus, but the United States,” confirming that Jenner is somehow perceived as alien and separate from the vast majority of other supposed comrades-in-identity.

It follows that Jenner’s Irvine presentation was awash in the excitement of controversy. When a student inquired why the speaker wasn’t a Democrat, Jenner revealed that being a public conservative garnered, at least personally, more criticism than being a transgendered individual. Penn student reactions on Facebook seem to have confirmed as much: one post by a Polybian Society member reads “Not sure who was there last night… but Caitlyn Jenner says she’s a Reagan conservative, and launched into a 3 minute Fox News rant about debt and jobs” (naturally, this “rant” discussed the pitfalls of a country that outsources its employment opportunities and refuses to acknowledge flagrant public spending – you know, those radical ideas). Additionally, the event directly mentioned how Penn’s student body had summarily rejected Jenner as a true spokesperson for transgenderism, with moderator and Pulitzer author Buzz Bissinger inquiring what Jenner made of the furor. Giving up the mantle of a transgender spokesperson writ large, Jenner clarified that the point of events such as the Penn discussion was to tell a personal story, just as any other celebrity or public figure would represent his or her own experiences.

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A local news channel shows students lining up outside Penn’s Irvine Auditorium in anticipation of Caitlyn Jenner’s talk.

Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on the student body. The Daily Pennsylvanian reports that many audience members seated in Irvine’s first floor left before the event was over, while others accused Jenner of being self-absorbed for making the event about a personal narrative (I guess some people expected the presentation to be something else other than advertised?). Reaction to the event as a whole seems to be mildly negative, with the DP editorial board putting on a happy facade through equivocating phrases such as “regardless of how well you may have thought she spoke, this event will foster productive conversation among the student body” and “although Jenner consistently ignored Bissinger’s attempts to move forward with the conversation, her enthusiasm and readiness to answer every question was exactly what we want from a speaker.” One might as well give our campus newspaper an award for the most backhanded compliments thrown in a single article!

This author, a staunch conservative by most standards, expected Jenner’s arrival at Penn to spark a significant (and presumably ugly, knowing the trajectory of Penn’s discourse) debate over transgenderism itself. To my fellow conservatives, rest assured that I still harbor doubts about transgenderism as both a social and political institution, and to my fellow liberals, I suppose you have permission to hate me for bigotry or whatever other cathartic pejorative helps you wake up in the morning. But to my surprise, my dominant feelings regarding the Jenner event have little to do with broad-based social mores. Instead, I find myself utterly dismayed by the reception Jenner received, and by extension the behavior of many of my peers, over the course of this week and the last.

First, I disagree entirely with the Daily Pennsylvanian‘s half-hearted contention that Jenner’s presence has sparked a productive dialogue on campus. There is nothing particularly productive in the non-cisgendered community rejecting Jenner out of hand (or asking “is representation truly achievable?”) due to the celebrity’s beliefs and experiences regarding traditional relations, Republican ideals, and status as a public figure. If anything, a transgendered individual who supports traditional marriage, relates personal experiences to something other than an overarching political objective, and has the guts to mention a non-conventional collection of beliefs and identities for the purpose of public consumption, is the definition of intersectionality, diversity, and courage. For all the times I’ve had the narratives of diversity thrown in my face by a self-righteous moralizer, this is a perfect example of the left rendering itself unable to comply to its own smug wisdom.

I do commend QPenn’s committee for incorporating Jenner as a speaker during their Power week – although it is important to note that this was an after-the-fact decision (SPEC had already arranged for a date during the same week), and there was no initiation on the part of that organization to take the lead on Jenner’s arrival. Combined with the fact that many attendees appeared to have listened to Jenner only tangentially, I am fairly confident that the non-cis echo chamber is alive and well in the aftermath of the Irvine discussion.

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Caitlyn Jenner speaks inside Irvine Auditorium.

Second, it is clear that many Penn students prioritize the novelty and controversy of Jenner’s life over any insights that could be derived from a fairly unique individual. The sheer fact that one student took up valuable questioning time to ask Jenner about emoji preferences suggests that, for at least some folks, the entire process was nothing more than a way to blow off some steam. Furthermore, in personal talks about the event, I’ve found a bigger interest in the impending comments section arguments of our campus media sources than the content of Jenner’s talk (I wager few remember the details, and Jenner’s heartfelt reminisces of family relations, for example, will be cast aside in favor of whether Penn’s intelligentsia deems Jenner “transgender enough” to be a community representative). I don’t expect this type of interest to suddenly blossom into an intellectually rigorous dialogue anytime soon.

To be clear, I am not cynical enough to accuse every single Penn student of, alternately, ignorance, insincerity, uncritical thought, and hypocrisy (although I am certain the vast majority of us have at one point or the other harbored those exact feelings in our moments of frustration and vulnerability). However, this week’s event with Caitlyn Jenner laid bare some of the more vapid components of how our campus handles big questions and larger-than-life individuals. We must be willing to pay more than lip service to the ideas of engagement and exploration. This does not mean a suspension of strongly held beliefs; rather, when it comes to challenging topics and intriguing happenstances, we must be willing to let down our guards, or at least garner enough energy to actually consider an opinion, in order to gain the knowledge and perspective our university education is supposed to provide. When Caitlyn came to Penn, I do not think campus fixtures such as the QPenn event, SPEC, and the Daily Pennsylvanian succeeded in this regard. Let’s be sure to up our rigor the next time controversy comes to our door.

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