May 13, 2015

Bruce Jenner and the Power of Reappropriation

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In case you missed it, the Olympic athlete turned TV celebrity Bruce Jenner revealed a secret on national television: The man once called “the world’s greatest athlete” announced that he is a transgender woman.

For many, the revelation itself was not much of a surprise. In Keeping up with the Kardashians, Bruce Jenner has kept himself in the public eye and tabloids have chronicled his changing physique; they even photographed him on his way to get his Adam’s apple shaved down. For those of us who have been paying attention to Bruce Jenner, we had a sense that this revelation was coming.

Even so, his announcement, “I am a woman,” was profound. His revelation freed him and it changed us in the process.

Here’s why. By making his declaration, Bruce Jenner reappropriated what it means to be transgender. In our upcoming book, Friend and Foe we describe our research on reappropriation. Reappropriation happens when people transform a stigmatized term or symbol by deliberately using it for themselves. Consider the example of the LGBT community reappropriating the pink triangle; it had once been a symbol used to discriminate against and marginalize homosexuals. The LGBT community, however, literally turned the symbol upside down: By using it to identify themselves, the LGBT community transformed the pink triangle into the symbol of pride that it now is. Bruce Jenner’s brave embracing of his identity helped give a voice to the often forgotten T in LGBT.

And it’s not just symbols. Words matter as well. Our research has found that by reappropriating a derogatory term, such as when engineers call themselves “Nerds” or even when African-Americans call themselves the “N-word,” groups and individuals accomplish two goals. First, they feel more powerful. And second, others perceive them to be more powerful.

Anyone watching Jenner’s interview could see this transformation happen in real time. As Jenner made his declaration, gone was the timid Kardashian husband, the one with the vacant face and slouched shoulders. In its place, was a vibrant and effusive individual, one filled with energy and ready, as he declared, to “kick butt.” Jenner asserted his identity as a transgender woman, and by doing so, gained a sense of power and control.

Our research shows that the effects of reappropriation don’t end there. Jenner’s announcement changed what it means to be transgender for many of us. By becoming the proud and very public face of transgender identity, his proclamation diminished the stigma of being transgender. From the wide-ranging media and social media reports, the term transgender no longer seems so foreign and so negative. We have Bruce Jenner to thank for that.

Of course, the process of reappropriation doesn’t happen overnight. But Jenner’s small step was a giant leap forward for us all.