Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Over the weekend, the online tsunami triggered by the arrival of Caitlyn Jenner brought me to the Vanity Fair website. There Caitlyn Jenner rules, showcased on the July cover of the magazine.
The first thing you notice is the statuesque figure framed on the cover. "Call Me Caitlyn," directs this person, who flaunts a handsome face, red lipstick and a toned body encased in a corset.
The work of the magazine's premier photographer, Annie Leibovitz, the iconic cover photo will become one for the ages, as Demi Moore's naked pregnant body on a past cover once turned heads and provoked a national debate.
The 22-page article and photo spread can be downloaded now, and the issue will hit newsstands on June 9.
Only months ago, the world knew that very same person — the one staring into the camera and imploring the reader for their full attention — as Bruce Jenner.
In April, as Jenner prepared to launch his own reality TV show on the E! network, after returning to the public eye on the Kardashians' reality show, he told Diane Sawyer that he would soon begin life as a woman.
Jenner, 65, underwent extensive facial plastic surgery and breast augmentation, resulting in a physical transformation that reportedly fulfilled a long-standing desire to live life as a woman.
The realization of this goal, the article repeatedly suggests, will actually make Jenner a better person. While we learn that Bruce had a distant relationship with his children, his son, Burt, tells Vanity Fair, “I have high hopes that Caitlyn is a better person than Bruce.”
But in our decontructed, fast-moving world, what does it mean to be a woman?
Vanity Fair's website offers glimpses of Caitlyn's particular view of womanhood.
We learn, for example, of Jenner's plans to practice socializing as a woman by inviting female friends and daughters to have a glass of wine and enjoy "just being girls." A video image documents the laborious application of makeup, as Jenner expresses a newfound sympathy for the lot of women. We learn, too, of Jenner's hurt feelings, after his children refused to take part in his new reality show, "I Am Cait."
President Obama, along with half the social-media universe, has applauded Jenner's decision to realize his dreams.
But some are not reacting in lockstep.
The radical feminist, or RadFem community resents Jenner's public explanation for making the change.
“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told Sawyer back in April, in a comment that doesn't square with the RadFem worldview.
"Radical feminists reject the notion of a 'female brain.' They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential," writes Elinor Burkett, in a June 6 column for The New York Times.
Burkett also questions whether a rich, entitled, male celebrity should get to spout off on what defines a woman. But her displeasure with Jenner, Burkett admits, flies in the face of a new understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman.
"The elasticity of the term 'transgender' has forced a rethinking of what sex and gender mean; at least in progressive circles, what’s determinative isn’t people’s chromosomes or their genitals or the way that they were brought up but how they see themselves."
The "sex babe" element of the Caitlyn Jenner narrative is another irritant, says Burkett.
In fact, the heavy makeup, vampy clothes and "female brain" talking points have produced the unthinkable: RadFems are moving just a bit toward the social-conservative camp. They have begun to distance themselves from the progressive movement.
As some see it, in recent years, political progressives have become absorbed with a 24/7 defense of sexual rights, facilitated by a "compliant media," And in the process, they have forgotten that being a woman is really more about the harsh reality of caste and male privilege, not self-actualization.
I share Burkett's unease with the Caitlyn Jenner rollout, and the superficial, subtly ironic tone.
How many people, I wonder, look at the cover shot and the promotional materials on the Vanity Fair website and think to themselves, "Women are pretty silly, just like Caitlyn." After all, she seems to confuse the externals — hair, makeup, dishing with the 'girls' — with the deeper experience of being a human being, let alone a woman.
In contrast, Pope St. John Paul II, in his Letter to Women, said the distinctive genius of women lies in their capacity to "enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic."
Register columnist and blogger Mark Shea, in a June 4 post on Patheos, writes that in Caitlyn's world, the term, "woman," "has been entirely drained of meaning beyond 'Whatever the hell I say it means right now, buster, and you better knuckle under or else.'"
"But, of course, when words come to mean whatever we want them to mean, we kill them as useful words. A word that means anything means nothing."
Why should we care?
The Caitlyn Jenner "I am woman" moment reveals the extent of the confusion that pervades our era, and has seeped into our schools, where "bathroom bills" are stirring up parents, and new books for children and young adults invite them to question their own identity as a boy or a girl.
Further, Caitlyn is here to remind us all that the legalization of same-sex"marriage" is not the final chapter of the gender-bending agenda.
"[T]ransgenderism will be the next front in a culture war," suggests Damon Linker, in a post for The Week that takes note of social conservatives' embattled state of mind.
Though Linker doesn't side with Catholics, who oppose the redefinition of marriage, he agrees that Caitlyn Jenner's moment is about far more than a media bonanza for a reality TV show.
Some of Jenner's supporters, writes Linker, will go much "further than merely cheering on Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a woman. They want to protect her from the emotional harm of being judged."
Yes, it is a sign of the state of our political culture that when a male celebrity launches a reality show based on their new life as a woman, we can't just change the channel. Instead, we rush to welcome the arrival of this self-styled heroine and register our bonafides as tolerant citizens. We do this even if we don't understand what or who Caitlyn Jenner is all about, and why Jenner's story matters.