Caitlyn Jenner at the ESPYs (2015). Image: NPR Boston.

Caitlyn Jenner and the Gendered Way We Define Courage

Apparently courage isn’t found while wearing a dress, but reserved for heroes of battle


Peter Berg, producer of Friday Night Lights (2006–11) and director of Battleship (2012), is not the only high-profile commentator to question why Caitlyn Jenner deserves an award for courage. What has emerged is a bubbling-to-the-surface debate about how we define courage and how it relates to gender. Courage, vocal critics seem to argue, is rarely found while wearing a dress, it is reserved for heroes of battle.

Draped in her floor-length Versace gown, Jenner obviously no longer resembles Bruce, the 1976 Olympian who won the Decathlon and later graced boxes of Wheaties. Gone are the chiseled thigh muscles and bulky arms of an athlete who became a (masculine) American symbol of hard work, persistence, and victory.

As Bruce, Caitlyn battled in acceptable ways against competitors — using brute strength over physical exhaustion and national pride as his fuel. Now, as Caitlyn, Jenner tells the audience at the ESPY awards she fears the fashion police. “Be kind on me,” she says. “I’m new at this.”

Jenner’s admission is striking for its simplicity and what it represents. Never before has the public been granted access to such stark contrasts in gender performance and acceptability. Jenner demands we see her as feminine and powerful, a challenge to bravery’s supposed machismo core. Yes, Jenner may be new to gowns and makeup — a cringe-worthy definition of femininity if there ever was one — but receiving a courage award dressed in one and wearing some doesn’t mean she’s undeserving of the honor.

Still, critics are unrelenting in their attempts to define courage in damaging, sexist ways, presumably because they’re uncomfortable with someone so openly displaying what society dictates women must embrace and perform at all costs, but what it also refuses to value. The publicly outraged seem to be saying, “I’ll put up with women if I must, but I’d never want to be one.”

Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. Image: Washington Post,

In June, and coincidentally on the same day Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover announced her gender-reassignment surgery, ESPN named Jenner its Courage Award recipient. The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is presented annually to “individuals whose contributions transcend sports through courageous actions,” ESPN wrote in a statement to quell public controversy over their announcement. Critics of the selection took to social media to begin a trend that hasn’t died down yet: pitting Jenner against “real” courageous heroes, almost all of them male and war veterans.

Producer and director Peter Berg may be the latest, but even famed NBC Sports analyst Bob Costas echoes Berg’s sentiment that Jenner couldn’t possibly embody “courage.” Appearing on the Dan Patrick Show, Costas explained, “In the broad world of sports, I’m pretty sure they could’ve found someone — and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner — who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would’ve been deserving of what that award represents.”

Costas’ carefully chosen words still hit hard: Jenner “doesn’t represent” courage, and by extension I have to assume, neither do other women. It’s the logical path one has to take when considering the hyper-masculine blow back of arranging imaginary opposing corners and sticking “individuals who wear dresses” and “individuals who go to war” into them.

And it’s one that’s been repeated in meme after meme, and shared around the social web: if Jenner wants to “choose” to do away with his masculinity and bravado then the only logical conclusion is to double-down with the “manliest” thing to ever macho: war.

Peter Berg on Instagram.

Let me be clear, this does not, in any way put into question the courageous acts of veterans like Noah Galloway or Gregory Gadson, whom some critics insist are two “more deserving” candidates for the award. What it does instead is use veterans as props to serve a narrow, gender construct purpose: courageous, outspoken women, and the transgender community need to be put in their place and silenced when they’re rewarded for being outspoken advocates in public for living their private truths.

In the twenty-two years of its existence, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award has been presented once to two war veterans — Pat and Kevin Tillman in 2002 — and to five women. But not to my knowledge has a recipient before faced such criticism and been labeled as “undeserving.”

And despite Costas’ assertion that Jenner should have been closer to her competitive years in sports, other recipients have been decades-removed from their athletic heydays, or they’ve received their awards posthumously. Thus, I must conclude Jenner’s gender reassignment is the real culprit of disdain. “How dare a testosterone-filled hero wave a white flag of defeat,” they appear to be saying, “and let oneself be captured by the enemy?”

But Jenner is no gender P.O.W. in search of rescue. She’s perfectly happy to stand before us, as she’s done before, harnessing national pride and sheer stamina to overcome a grueling physical and emotional decathlon that took decades instead of days.

If that’s not courageous, then I don’t know what is.

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