Capitalizing on Caitlyn?

By Aiko Suyemoto

After nearly ten months of swirling rumors, Caitlyn Jenner has announced she will release a memoir with the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger—an act that raising many questions about how she will use her status as a voice for the transgender community.

Jenner’s book deal comes after a whirlwind year in the public eye. The Time Person of the Year 2015 Runner-Up, Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, got her own reality show, and received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS. Yet the announcement of her memoir has people speculating if she’s doing the book to capitalize on her celebrity, or if she is in fact taking advantage of an opportunity to help others. 

In an interview with Diane Sawyer, which attracted an astounding 17 million viewers, Sawyer specifically asked Jenner whether her transition from male to female was a publicity stunt. Jenner adamantly replied, “What I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world. I really, firmly believe that we’re going to make a difference in the world with what we’re doing. And if the whole Kardashian show and reality television gave you that foothold into that world, to be able to go out there and really do something good, I’m all for that.”

Those close to Jenner endorse her good intentions, which are admittedly a work in progress, according to members of her inner circle. Jennifer Finney Boylan, an English professor at Barnard and consultant on the show I am Cait, acknowledges Jenner’s privilege and fame can often impede her well-intentioned dialogues. “She can also be exasperating and problematic, at least from a feminist perspective,” Boylan said, “She comes from a very privileged place, and she may not be aware of the bubble she lives in. Likewise, her sense of womanhood seems, at times, to focus on the exterior rather than the interior.

“But,” she explained  “at the same time she is truly dedicated to being a force for good, and for using her curious celebrity, and that of her curious family, as a catalyst for social change. She has a very good heart, and really wants to help people.”

Boylan has developed a lasting friendship with Jenner in the process of becoming a sort of mentor to the star. “It’s been my goal to try to educate her, at least on the I Am Cait show. It’s my role on that program to be the one person who is constantly wagging my finger in her face, telling her to reconsider something she has done or said.” Not only do these dialogues create valuable teachable moments, they also make for compelling reality television. “ You have to admit there’s something subversive about having a show in which the title character is constantly being challenged by the people around her,” Boylan said, “I think it’s fascinating.” 

And when I asked Professor Boylan what she thought Jenner was trying to achieve in releasing this memoir, she replied, “ I think Caitlyn’s very aware that she’s just one person, and that her story is sui generis.  She isn’t trying to speak for anyone other than herself—which is important, because if people think all trans people are like Caitlyn Jenner, we can all just get ready to drink hemlock now.  But her story will be amazing and interesting, and Buzz will do a good job, I’m sure. And that visibility can only help all of us.

Considering this beneficial clarity,  it doesn’t come as a surprise that the book’s author values transparency above all else. Bissinger, who also wrote Jenner’s Vanity Fair interview, emphasizes that the book’s honesty comes first and foremost. He recently told the New York Times, “I made it clear to her before I agreed that everything has to be on the table, nothing can be left out, and I’m going to be interviewing dozens of other people. It’s her book, but it’s going to be reported out to keep her honest. She’s been incredibly open, and I think it has the potential to be a really important book.”

Professor Boylan agrees that the book’s veracity carries a significant amount of weight for the transgender community, as it will no doubt garner much-needed awareness in telling Jenner’s story. “Like my mother always used to say, ‘It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know,’” she said.

So it seems Jenner is determined to employ her celebrity for the greater good, despite the distraction of fame and privilege. Ultimately though, as Professor Boylan concluded, “This is one story. We need to hear lots more.”