Jon Stewart’s shrewdness as a crowd pleaser has never been more evident than in his treatment of Caitlyn Jenner. Earlier this week, when Bruce Jenner’s sexual transformation made the cover of Vanity Fair, Stewart strung together a series of television commentaries about Jenner’s appearance. Most, in Stewart’s selection, made the point that Jenner looked especially fetching, or was sexier than somebody else, or took the trouble to describe Jenner’s tight-fitting corset, ample cleavage, and come-hither facial expression. This, Stewart declared to his audience, was evidence that Jenner was now truly a woman in America: In the past, he explained, the media might have talked about Bruce’s athletic prowess or business acumen; now all they wanted to discuss were Caitlyn’s looks and desirability.
As is almost invariably the case with Jon Stewart, the observation is, at best, half-true. There is no question that, on balance, women in the news tend to have their appearance described (and judged) more often than men – and that this is truly unfair when applied to people such as Carly Fiorina or Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice, whose appearance is irrelevant to their public significance. But does this apply to Caitlyn Jenner? The only point worth knowing about Caitlyn Jenner is that she used to be a man and now considers herself a woman. And in presenting her new 65-year-old female self to the world, she chose to pose for the cover of Vanity Fair in the aforementioned tight-fitting corset, with ample cleavage and that come-hither expression. Any press speculation about Caitlyn Jenner’s looks or sexiness, it seems to me, was prompted by Caitlyn Jenner herself.
In that regard, I can’t help but compare her debut with a similar transformation a generation ago. When the 46-year-old British travel writer James Morris journeyed to Morocco in 1972 for surgery, and returned to England as Jan Morris, the story was not exactly a novelty in the postwar era; but it was a surprise, even a shock. The best-known instance of a public sex change, in those days, had been the American Christine Jorgensen, who made her living as a nightclub entertainer in the 1950s, consciously imitating Marilyn Monroe. Jan Morris, an Oxford-educated scholar and journalist of high repute, is very different from Christine Jorgensen – or Caitlyn Jenner, for that matter – and I offer this 1974 photograph in evidence.
It shows Jan Morris being interviewed by Dick Cavett on his late-night talk show. I remember it well. Morris was demonstrably female in appearance – she wore makeup, styled hair, and a dress, and comported herself in a certain way – and her voice had a new, womanly timbre. But Cavett made no mention of her sex appeal, or lack of it, and while coverage of her newly transgendered status had been largely clinical in tone, it was universally polite and devoid of speculation about her attractiveness to men.
This is not evidence that the mid-1970s was a more enlightened age in America than our own. It is evidence that Jan Morris presented herself to the world in a certain way, and continues to do so, and has been treated as such. From the vantage of her glamour shot on the cover of Vanity Fair, Caitlyn Jenner has done exactly the same -- and Jon Stewart notwithstanding, has been judged on the basis she would evidently wish to be judged.