Those of us who live in western society live in a society which proclaims to value diversity. On the other hand, actions speak louder than words, and in America a look at the representation of minorities in our media says a lot about how much diversity is actually valued: not all that much. People with disabilities are rarely represented in the media, and media depictions of people with mental illnesses are often problematic. We’re only now moving into an era where mainstream media is beginning to approach the stories of the LGBT community with anything even resembling respect, and it wasn’t until the last few years that transgender characters, actors, and other celebrities began to be noticed.
Why is this important? Because the media we consume shapes our perceptions of the world and of what constitutes “normal” and acceptable. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world and our place in it shape the way we interact with the world, and the way we interact with the world shapes the world. The stories our society tells us about itself shapes our understanding of it—once again it shapes our perceptions, and thus how we go forth into the world; how we see and understand (or look through and misunderstand) each other. That is why it is important to pay attention to the kinds of stories that are being produced and consumed. These stories are a huge part of the production of hegemony—of the ideals which we hold near and dear, of our conceptions of what is good and bad, right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and deplorable.
Returning to those stats on how minorities are represented in the media (that is, poorly) and taking into consideration how that media can and does—collectively and together with influences from family, peers, school, etc. etc.—shape our world view and by extension our actual world itself, maybe we can see how that media functions to produce and reinforce sameness. Certainly it reveals that we prefer to produce and consume narratives which represent sameness, which do not represent the diversity which we claim to value, at the very least. And as we continue to consume media which shows us only a very limited scope of humanity, we come to accept that this limited scope represents “normal.” This is what we want to see. All else is deviation—and deviation is deviant. All else is “other.” “Other” is bad.*
Of course that is a very extreme outlook on it, and most people won’t start frothing at the mouth at slight deviations from the predictable patterns in popular narratives (though some people do). Nonetheless, that effect is present in our society, and in our media. And that effect can make it very difficult for people who feel they do not fit into this narrow scope of “normal” to be true to themselves. Which is why, though Caitlyn Jenner is not a hero to me personally, I do recognize how Caitlyn Jenner might be a hero to others.
You go, girl.
As a transwoman Caitlyn Jenner belongs to one of those groups which our media so often fails to represent. This is why it is so exciting that she came out as trans—not only is she a public figure, she is renowned and respected. Trans role models** are few and far between in the public sphere, let alone a record setting athlete. Of course this is exciting to people. Of course this is exciting to the LGBT community. Of course people who have been afraid to come out as trans in a society which values sameness in the form of cis heterosexuality would call her a hero. Coming out as trans in our society is not only intimidating but potentially dangerous. (As a cis woman I want to acknowledge that I can’t say I know these things through lived experiences, but through the stories I’ve heard and the reports I’ve read.)
It can be dangerous to be different in a society where sameness is valued over diversity. Which is why I think that being true to yourself in such a society can be heroic. It may not be saving a group of school children from a shooter or going to the aid of a victim of a crime or rescuing people off their roofs during a flood. But there are many, many ways to be a hero. Standing up and showing others who may be afraid to do so that it is not only possible but freeing and good to be true to yourself, especially in the face of hatred and discrimination…why not call that heroic? Why not let people say that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero for doing so?
Let them have their heroes. We all need our own heroes to demonstrate human potential in the face of great difficulty. There’s nothing wrong with that.
*While a lot of people recognize the potentially damaging effects of not having a rounded representation of minorities in the media, it has been contested by others that seeking diversity shouldn't be the point, and some interesting and, I think, valid points have been made on this front. In some ways I agree--seeking diversity shouldn't have to be the point. It would be nice if it would just happen naturally.
**Whether or not Caitlyn Jenner actually wants to be a role model, of course, I have no idea. It seems both unfair to put that burden/assumption on her and also, somewhat uncomfortably, inevitable.