Bruce Jenner and the Conundrum of Self

There was quite a bit that Bruce Jenner was unsure and halting about in “his” landmark interview with Diane Sawyer last week. He didn’t claim to know many of the hows or whys of his still emerging transgender identity, hadn’t yet come to terms with what happens from here, how it is all going to evolve.

But there was one aspect of his interview responses that was striking for its calm serenity, its obvious and apparent level of settled self-knowledge. It was when he referenced the inner female he had always identified with and seen himself as from his very earliest memories. That’s when his face glowed, his voice softened, and his body seemed to settle into the couch where he was otherwise squirming and shifting under some very uncharted conversational territory—before an estimated audience of 17 million.

“For all intents and purposes, I am a woman. People look at me differently. They see you as this macho male, but my heart and my soul and everything that I do in life it is part of me, that female side is part of me. That’s who I am.”

Let’s examine this for a bit, even though it is so packed with questions and implications that entire libraries would not exhaust an analysis.

Jenner was born and lived most of his life to this point as a male, of that there is no doubt. I was fortunate to see him compete many times in his decathlete days, in an event that deservedly wins its Olympian gold medal winner the moniker of “the world’s best athlete.” And I am here to say that man was all man, any way you look at it. He didn’t walk, talk, run, jump or throw like any woman ever born. And he was Wheaties box handsome to boot.

Walt Whitman’s line, ‘I contain multitudes,’ would no doubt set Jenner laughing. He contains multitudes, all right…

And yet his own internal experience was exponentially different. For all his masculine physical power, he felt his way through the world, looked out upon that world, as a female. But what does that mean, really? What exactly is an “inner female,” and what are the qualities one carries within that identity?

Is an inner female softer of tone, more conciliatory, less aggressive, more empathic and nurturing than her male counterparts? Or are a good number of those and similar qualities commonly ascribed to females more culturally conditioned than inherent to femaleness?

Who (or what?) was this female Self that Bruce Jenner claims resided too deeply within his thoroughly male physical Self for that male Self ever to supplant? That male Self could win Olympic gold, but it could not take up residence within the female Self that Jenner claims has always been his emotional core and identity.

All of which begets an even more fundamental question: Just what is a Self anyway?

And here, my friends, is where we swim in some very ancient and deep waters.



Walt Whitman’s line, “I contain multitudes,” would no doubt set Jenner laughing. He contains multitudes, all right, and sometimes the various selves jostling for a voice inside him demonstrate another Whitman line: “I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”

To hear him tell it, Jenner’s life has been one long contradiction, which he is now attempting to resolve by throwing history’s most ballyhooed coming-out party.

We’re complex creatures, we humans are, often falling short of our best intentions, undermining our own success, failing to give our emotions and intellect their due in the right mixture and sequence. Even the most consistent of us can be maddeningly inconsistent, the most self-aware still selectively ignorant. And history tells us over and over that under the right conditions, otherwise good people can do horrible things.

So within the many strands comprising our self-identity, where is the True Self, the changeless essence? Is there such a thing at all?

Is Bruce Jenner’s proclaimed inner female just one more innocent enough figment of a human imagination that allows for no fixed, static point, but is instead in constant flux, even as it seeks to explain the inexplicable, cohere the incoherent?



Buddhism tells us exactly that: that the Self is a delusion, a forever-temporary patchwork of fragments that we mistakenly insist add up to some unified and constant individual whole, some Me that I and those who know me can readily identify. “No Self” is the highest aspiration of Buddhists, which is the only “True Self” there is. (Buddhism contradicts itself? Very well indeed; it does so merrily, in order to reflect the irresolvable contradictions of identity, time and death weighing us down in this mortal sphere.)

But Jenner presents a challenge to both sides of that True Self/No Self equation.

Certainly those who knew Bruce Jenner thought of him in a fixed sense as the male he was in the world. And all the while, Jenner felt himself to be something else, a different sort of Self beyond their imagining, and beyond even his own imagining, when examined physically and rationally. (He has a penis with which he impregnated females, after all!) He endured a lifetime of confusion and self-recrimination over the conflicts that ensued. Too many radically contradictory Selves in there to have a unified, fixed anything!

But underneath all that confusion and contradiction, we get the consistent thread, the calm report, the peaceful assurance of one who long ago met an essence of femaleness within himself and knew it to be true. It was “true” to him, even as a callow youth, by virtue of the comfort he felt in residing there, the sense of “coming home” and being at one with who he truly is.

Jenner’s subjective sense of equanimity in female identity, despite the contrary and distracting reality of his physical self, makes a powerful case for a changeless essence, a Self-understanding beyond the normal strictures of time, place and even, in his case, visible gender itself. In that sense, it is closer to the Christian notion of Self as one who has left the false and lower self behind and come into alignment with his true nature—which he is now in the process of claiming, at long last, as a “her.”

No more masks, no more distance between how one presents and who one is. Freed from falsity and finally expressing her essence, her true nature, Bruce Jenner’s new Self blinks in a powerful light, still feeling her way toward the unity she hopes, if there is any sense of cosmic justice in this world, to be her birthright.


Some vintage Sammy Davis here, singing it true…


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5 comments to Bruce Jenner and the Conundrum of Self

  • […] watched Diane Sawyer’s recent interview with Bruce Jenner, Andrew Hidas considers “the conundrum of the […]

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    For nearly a millennium Western Cultural males have struggled with the tension between their outer maleness and their inner feminine. Most men have resolved this by projecting their inner feminine onto women. It is revealing in the first romance written in about the 1100s that the young male character, in love with his queen, keeps asking the question, “Will I never find someone [a woman] to heal me of my unhappiness?”

    Men in Western Culture seem to always be yearning for the ideal feminine. But immediately men are in trouble in this area because we forsook the soul more than a thousand years ago. I think this tragedy is mainly due to the creation of Christianity (a subject to be explored later). Christianity is a faith focused on a risen savior, not one which resides within our inner world. Nevertheless, the soul is real and needs what it needs, which is the recognition that it is feminine. The feminine that men need is an inner experience, not an outer.

    Romantic love in today’s world is a confusion of the feminine with the female. I can’t speak to the particular reason that Bruce Jenner has become fixated on a female identity. But this much I do know. Most, if not all men in this culture are desperately seeking the feminine. Is it possible to confuse the feminine with the female, substituting the need for our feminine soul with the desire for womanhood? I think this is one of many dilemmas facing men. The need for the feminine is an inherent problem for men; that we are like blind men searching for some kind of light switch in a completely dark room is also true.

    It is a sad affair for the men who confuse the feminine with women. Like Tristan, they will be ever seeking for something they will never find.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You raise critical points here, Robert. But I wonder if there’s something else going on, something even more mysterious and knottier, with transgender people such as Jenner as opposed to straight and even gay people integrating their opposing gender qualities. A distinct male or female looks to claim their inner opposite in order to come into the fullness of the human experience while still living from their essential male or femaleness, their essence. But it’s that very essence that is at issue with transgender people. They claim the wires got crossed, something happened, and their inner essence bears no relation to their anatomy. That seems to make it a much more complicated matter, so it’s little wonder that most human societies, being the essentially conservative entities they are, have found it difficult to accept. Which makes it all the more astonishing, though, how quickly things HAVE changed, and how far out of the closet transgenderism has come. I don’t think anyone could have predicted it; we are lucky to live in interesting times!

  • Blog roundup: Responding to Baltimore | Daily Planet  says:

    […] watched Diane Sawyer’s recent interview with Bruce Jenner, Andrew Hidas considers “the conundrum of the […]

  • […] watched Diane Sawyer’s recent interview with Bruce Jenner, Andrew Hidas considers “the conundrum of the […]

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