It feels rather dramatic to describe something a day old as iconic, but that’s what Vanity Fair’s July cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner is. With three simple words, one stunning photograph, and a strategically-posted issue preview, Jenner and the magazine on Monday accomplished something much bigger than selling magazines, though the pairing is sure to do that, too: They made it possible for millions of Americans to say they know of someone who has transitioned from male to female and seen the incredible results. They put a face—a flirty, happy, radiating face—on a social issue that has been otherwise covered by the mainstream media almost exclusively under tragic circumstances.
No role models are perfect—they’re people, after all—but there was significant public fretting from inside the transgender community and out over what kind of spokesperson Bruce Jenner might make when “sources close to the Kardashian family” confirmed his plans to sit down and talk about gender with Diane Sawyer this spring. Me? I marveled at how uniquely positioned Bruce was to touch lives and open hearts across generations. As the record-breaking response to Caitlyn’s debut confirms, she’s a shotgun for change in an arsenal of scalpels.
That’s why her cream bodice kind of bums me out. Caitlyn Jenner says she’s finally free to be herself. But her outfit says she’s free only to try on the same version of femininity Vanity Fair cover subjects have been modeling for years. She’s two satin straps and a birthday candle away from being Kate Upton. She’s a swipe of red lipstick away from being Katy Perry. She’s a half-yard of gold trim away from being Tina Fey. Caitlyn Jenner looks sexy, strong, and confident. Wouldn’t it mean even more if she looked special, too?
I get it: Annie Liebovitz is playing with the classic Vanity Fair trope, the Old Hollywood screen goddess that makes passersby do a double-take (and in this case, a triple-take). With Jenner, the styling feels more like a gimmick than a statement, an inside-the-box idea imposed on an icon who was once famous for being on one.