The Hypervisible Whiteness of Christine Jorgensen's Transnational Celebrity

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 2:10 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago)
Susan Stryker, University of Arizona
In recent decades, the role of 1950s-era transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen in the global dissemination of transgender discourses has been undergoing revision. In an award-winning essay, Emily Skidmore has critiqued Jorgensen’s mass media persona for the manner in which it reproduced privileged forms of binary gender, race/ethnicity, and class; C. Riley Snorton has written powerfully on “Jorgensen’s Shadows,” people of color whose own gender transitions were eclipsed in popular awareness by Jorgensen’s ubiquity in the media; and Aren Z. Auzura, in an effort to “provincialize” transgender discourses emanating from the US and Europe, has questioned the centrality of Jorgensen’s celebrity to mid-twentieth-century notions of “sex-change.” In this presentation, I suggest that while these critiques all raise important points that advance new understandings of the transgender past, they all likewise fail to account for the truly global and transnational cultural work Jorgensen’s presence accomplished precisely because of her whiteness, US citizenship, and conventional feminine beauty. I argue that what we see, when we see Jorgensen circulating transnationally as the race/class/gender-coded avatar of a new technological mode of embodiment, is a spectacle that allows us to map, and not merely critique, the vectors through which contemporary forms of personhood have had to articulate themselves both through and against the norms Jorgensen was made to represent.
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