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The Black Dress: Some Thoughts on the Coming Out of Bruce Jenner  

When you look back to 1976 and to the 1980s — to the Olympics and Can’t Stop the Music, say — you realize that he’s seemed ready for this moment all along.

There were any number of poignant moments between Bruce Jenner and Diane Sawyer during Bruce Jenner: The Interview, ABC’s1 Friday-night two-hour coming-out special. There was, for instance, the recollection that Jenner’s daughter Kendall had once set up a low-tech security system to catch her sister Kylie in the act of borrowing her clothes, only to find that Jenner was the one caught wearing a dress. “It was the only full-length mirror in the house,” he confessed.2


1.

ABC and Grantland are both owned by the Walt Disney Company.

2.

For the time being, Jenner said, he prefers to be referred to by the pronoun “he.”

He went to great pains to remind Sawyer — and, by extension, millions of Americans — that being a trans woman has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. As far as he’s concerned, he’s straight. That conviction actually seemed to be at the heart of the most poignant moment of all. Near the end of the interview, he and Sawyer were discussing a private dinner they had scheduled, and he mentioned the dress he was planning to wear. She asked to see it, and Jenner obliged. The magic of this moment needs no background explanation. Anyone watching could understand that this was the sight of someone who had lived in public without romance making an intimate disclosure. But anyone who has watched Jenner fulfill the role of put-upon, put-down husband and dad on Keeping Up With the Kardashians could glean the added significance of both Sawyer’s desire to see the dress and Jenner’s pride in showing it off.

For not a few of its 10 seasons, the show put Jenner, who’s 65, on the receiving end of numerous aggravated requests from his then-wife, Kris Jenner, to make himself more presentable. The ill-fitting dress shirts, high-water pants, white athletic socks, and baseball caps over a long ponytail were a problem for the image-conscious women in Jenner’s life. The ribbing he came in for during most episodes now assumes new weight. He told Sawyer that the family knew about his wearing dresses, but no one really discussed it, perhaps out of shame or chagrin or some combination of the two. The disapproval basically amounted to: “Are you really going out like that?” And: “You’re embarrassing us.” Jenner explained that, for his entire life, he’s never wanted to rock any boats. And going along with the program, which includes the two young daughters he had with Kris, has made him very rich.

But his long face and aloof demeanor spoke of the toll taken by the on-camera derogation. He looked miserable on the reality show. Friday’s broadcast clarified the misery. Jenner hated those clothes even more than Kris did. And Kris, as a wife struggling with her husband’s struggle, presumably hated them for more complicated reasons than how unflattering they were to Jenner. This wasn’t the man she thought she had married, and maybe she thought she could change him. But he evolved on his own. The couple divorced early this year.

The average man dresses averagely. He confesses to having no idea what to wear and doesn’t care to learn. Fashion is for women, and shopping is for sisters, mothers, girlfriends, and wives. Women tell men which clothes are acceptable and which are not. Jenner’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t know what to wear. The problem was that what he wore as a man wasn’t acceptable to his wife, and what he wanted to wear instead was unacceptable to most of the rest of the world. He was acutely conscious of his image and had to keep his identity a secret.

This is a long way of getting back to the dress. By this point in the special, Jenner had already wrapped Sawyer in a warm hug and led her, by the hand, on a tour of his hometown of Tarrytown, the New York village he hadn’t visited for almost half a century. Sawyer and Jenner were meeting for the first time, but the rapport between them, while evidently strategic, felt real, particularly on Jenner’s end. He invited her up to his closet and revealed the dress, a lightweight black number with sheer elements. You could feel his excitement to share it with someone who wouldn’t cast aspersions on it.

He didn’t put the dress on for the camera. That was only for Sawyer, the journalist who, over the course of an intimate afternoon, became a platonic date.

 ♦

Bruce JennerAP Photo

Bruce Jenner made us all look good at the 1976 Olympics. He looked good, too, conquering first the decathlon, then cereal boxes. Anytime he moved, so did his hair. Even in photographs, it appeared to be up to something. It was a version of the bowl cut that people wore back then, and Jenner became at least partially synonymous with it. His version was like a small helmet with a curtain of bangs, and it told a story of purity and goodness, of basic all-Americanism. It gave him a kind of glamour that you were simultaneously inclined to notice and disinclined to unpack, because Jenner was the Greatest Athlete in the World and was therefore viewed, no questions asked, through a classical masculine prism. But the haircut never seemed to suit him, not to me.

In 1980, Jenner starred in the Manhattan disco-era fantasia Can’t Stop the Music. It was a lousy (lousy) vehicle for the Village People that made room in its sidecar for him. He played a lawyer from St. Louis whose scenes mostly involve the comedy of having his clothes removed. At some point, he hits the streets with the Villagers, Valerie Perrine, and Steve Guttenberg, leading them while wearing a white, midriff-baring T-shirt and a pair of what would soon become known as Daisy Dukes. The movie was an instant flop; it won the first Golden Raspberry Award, and Jenner was nominated for worst actor.3


3.

He lost to Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer.

Can’t Stop the Music showed up at the moment America was turning, sometimes violently, against disco — and against its overt association with queerness. By 1980, a disco movie was instant camp (ask Xanadu). But when I found Can’t Stop the Music on television, at 8 or 9, what I saw fascinated me even though I didn’t know what I was seeing. The S&M musical number and parade of human variety were Muppet Show–funny. Jenner had a stiff exuberance throughout the movie. He didn’t seem afraid to act; he just couldn’t do it. But his wholesomeness did something to all that gay chaos: neutralized it, made it seem pretty OK. The guy from the Wheaties box was an accidental, momentary culture warrior.

That’s not the Jenner who appeared, 27 years later, on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, where he seemed sedated with sadness and was made out to be a clueless embarrassment to the empire week after week. To be sure, his appearance was changing before our eyes: face-lifts and ear piercings. None of the transformations ever appeared to bring him or Kris, the mastermind of the family’s cultural kingdom, any happiness. Whenever I’d see him in an episode, his passive withdrawal amounted to a vote of disapproval. His body language was sour. His skepticism toward the women in his family echoed the rue and bewilderment that Warren Beatty exudes in 1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare: Why would anyone want to live in public this way?

Behind the baseball caps and sunglasses and blousing dress shirts, he was clearly going through a transition. The tabloids fueled speculation that he was undergoing hormone treatments and having his Adam’s apple shaved. But without his confirmation, there was only speculation. On Friday, he bravely declared that he was a trans woman. His conversation with Sawyer was long, detailed, and unexpectedly unguarded. Sawyer deployed marshmallow-toasting warmth and necessarily put-on ignorance to ask questions that Jenner seemed eager to answer.     

The comatose husband and father of “that show,” as Sawyer put it, was gone. Jenner had regained his touch with the stiff, Can’t Stop the Music exuberance he had shown all those years ago. He made faces and gesticulated; he smiled, and, in America’s Next Top Model parlance, he smized. For you or me, communicating this way would scarcely be news. But for someone whose television appearances often made you want to check his pulse, there wasn’t a front-page font big enough: He’s alive!

But Jenner wasn’t merely alive. He was kicking — maybe too hard. Jenner also has a capacity for rude-jock coarseness. Once, his sarcasm came at Sawyer’s expense, when he mocked her simple, elegant white shirt and black pants. (Jenner wore a version of his inelegant uniform: a baggy blue dress shirt, black pants, white gym socks, and slip-ons.) Still, he was ready, he said, to live as a woman and willing to use his life to make a difference in the lives of others. With Sawyer, he was a culture warrior on purpose, and the interview shrewdly packaged an argument for a positive cultural change around transgender people and issues. Sawyer spoke to doctors who explained the stages of the transition process and the brutal social stigmas that surround it. The two-hour broadcast featured other trans men and women and offered a brief history of notable trans figures. But it never lost sight of the seismic news that Bruce Jenner was the one demolishing his closet door.

A few athletes have come out as gay in the last two years. Those sorts of announcements are crucial and newsworthy, even beyond the particular hothouse of big-time sports. Still, the news is starting to feel behind the times (even if only by a beat). The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on same-sex marriage that could result in national legalization. Jenner’s coming out as a trans woman, on the other hand, feels ahead of the curve. In the special, Sawyer mentions that while the percentage of Americans who know a gay man or woman is in the mid-80s, the percentage who know a trans person is about 8. As a member of the Jenner-Kardashian media empire and a still-iconic sports figure, Jenner seems to know that his announcement changes that lack of familiarity. This version of Jenner will be some other 8-year-old’s Can’t Stop the Music.

For all the cringing we do over the Jenner-Kardashians — the materialism, the opportunism, the narcissism  they have shown over and over that in their way, they matter. Their tribulations get a somewhat snazzier treatment than ours. But the unwitting but not-insignificant triumph of the show is the shockingly vivid humanness of the ever-widening, female-dominated, multiracial family. Jenner’s announcement recasts both the nature of Kris’s on-camera cruelty and his daughters’ indifference. Just maybe, the story line in this family  staged or not  mirrors the story of someone in yours.

Jenner’s decision to reclaim the story of his transition from the tabloid press helps alleviate some of the stigma associated with it. The E! network plans to air an eight-part documentary special about the transition that risks redundancy and tackiness, given the high quality, excellent ratings, and positive reception of Sawyer’s interview, but it’s all part of that self-reclamation. Jenner is courageously reframing his paternity, asserting femininity, and reclaiming his humanity. He’s asserting himself as a voice of misunderstood, underrepresented people.

When you look back to 1976 and to the 1980s — to the Olympics and Can’t Stop the Music, say  you realize that he’s seemed ready for this moment all along. The second most moving moment in his appearance with Sawyer came early in the conversation, when he released his hair from the ponytail he has, in recent years, always worn. The mane rested around his shoulders, as brown and bodied as it was in 1976, but a helmet no more. The curtain across his forehead had parted.