SIlver Threads: From Christine to Caitlyn
Sunday morning’s printed edition of The Times Picayune carried a column by Erick Erickson under the headline “Caitlyn (Jenner) is proof (that) popular culture has lost its mind.” That writer can’t be very old; if he were my age, he’d know that people of my parents' generation thought it happened when “Elvis the Pelvis” and rock ’n roll made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in the ‘50s. My grandparents probably thought it began when women shortened their skirts and started doing the Charleston.
Me, I drew the line years later at dirty rap lyrics and famous comedians who can’t say five words without beginning one of them with the letter “f.” Ditto for explicit sex in the movies and on television shows. But the portrayed violence worries me more, and I haven’t read much printed comment on that.
While Elvis was shocking our parents, two years earlier Christine Jorgensen was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Shortly after graduating from high school, she was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II. After her service she attended several schools, worked, and around this time heard about transitioning surgery. She traveled to Denmark and obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations starting in 1951.
She returned to the United States in the early 1950s and her transformation was the subject of a New York Daily News front page story. She became an instant celebrity, using the platform to advocate for transgender people and became known for her directness and polished wit. She also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs.
Now comes the Jenner story; many folks were being transformed between Christine and Caitlyn’s time, but they didn’t make nearly as much news.
I’d kind of known who Bruce Jenner was for a good many years, but lost track of exactly why. He won the gold medal in the men's decathlon event at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. With the unofficial title of "world's greatest athlete,” he endorsed products and starred in numerous movies and television specials.
I missed his TV and movies, never ate Wheaties, and until recently didn’t know that Jenner was married for 23 years to a Kardashian or that the couple and their children appeared on the television reality series “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Hey, give me a break. I’ve been retired for 15 years and out of the loop when it comes to keeping up with people like the Kardashians, who made their debut into popular culture in 2007.
Even I, however, could hardly have missed these latest developments concerning Jenner. Any day now I expect the latest Vanity Fair to arrive in my mailbox, an anti-climax indeed given the number of times I’ve seen the cover in other publications and on the internet.
And now, following their lead, I’ll start referring to Jenner as she, which is fine with me. This is her life story, not mine, and while I think she should have respected her own privacy, maybe the opportunity to star in another reality show — to begin in July — was too big to pass up. Maybe she’s been in the spotlight too long to walk away from it. Perhaps she wants to make a statement; I’m sure we agree that everybody has that right.
It’s been an interesting first half of 2015, hasn’t it, what with the Brian Williams thing, the Dennis Hastert thing, the sex and money scandals involving sports figures and league managers, all of them cheapening popular and political culture. Perhaps Caitlyn Jenner’s story, over-publicized and disturbing as it is to some who would like their personal beliefs to guide everyone else’s life, is least important to the populace as a whole.
Overdone, that’s what I call the Caitlyn Jenner story, and I hope it’s done. But would I interview her if she called and asked? In a heartbeat. Old reporters never die.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]