As “the face of trans teens,” Jazz Jennings is special. I have not followed Jazz’s story in any detail, but Jazz has a documentary series, a YouTube channel and advertising deals. Yesterday I caught sight of an interview between Jazz and Cosmopolitan. I read it and while I can’t say I felt particularly enlightened by a narrative which equates “plastic princess heels” being a girl, one thing did interest me: what it must be like to be the sister of Jazz Jennings.
Obviously I have no idea what it is like. I only know what it is like to be the sibling of someone “special” in other, less interesting ways. Growing up I had a role in a different family drama, one that was not filmed, nor the subject of interviews, but in which someone else, another child, played the “starring” role. My sibling was not the face of trans or any other kind of teens; my sibling was ill. But still it sucked up all the air until it was impossible to breathe.
In the Cosmo piece, the following exchange takes place between Jennings and the interviewer:
I read a Twitter chat you did where you said the hardest part of being trans is not being able to have your own biological child. Why does that stand out now, even though you’re so young?
It’s really hard for me to look at that because with such an amazing mom, I always wanted to be the greatest mom ever. People say, “Oh, you can always adopt,” and I completely agree with that. I can adopt. But, like, I’ll never have that moment where she comes out of my vag and I can say, “That’s my baby.” But since my sister has my same DNA, I’m convincing her to carry the baby for me.
Oh, good! It can come out of her vag.
We’ll take my hubby’s sperm and throw it in there and fertilize it.
I don’t know how serious such an exchange is meant to be. Jennings is 14, perhaps too immature to understand the full implications of pregnancy, surrogacy and birth (and certainly lacking a good understanding of DNA). I don’t know if Jennings’ sister is bothered by such flippant exchanges or not. What I do know is that when one child is positioned as special – more interesting, more needy, more unique – his or her siblings become bit-part players in the special child’s Noble Struggle For Self Realisation. It disturbs me to see such a narrative reinforced so harshly and so crudely, with no recognition of the other power imbalances (e.g. reproductive exploitation, secondary sibling status) which underpin it.
I am sure it has not been easy to be Jazz Jennings or perhaps even Jazz Jennings’ parents. But while the parents of a “special child” may be admired for their bravery and acceptance of difference, there are no such rewards on offer for the sibling. On the contrary, far from being considered brave, the non-special sibling will invariably be defined as “lucky.” How fortunate they are to be “normal”! How simple their lives must be! It might be the case that, unlike their peers, they are under intense pressure to achieve (you need to do all that your sibling cannot do!) despite having to cope with an especially disruptive home life (about which they cannot complain, what with them not being special). They are nonetheless expected to play the role of ultimate winner in life’s lottery. After all, you could have been them (as indeed could anyone else, but somehow this rarely crosses people’s minds).
In such a situation the non-special sibling has two options: supress their own needs and play the virtuous, grateful, lucky carer (I love my special sibling so much, I might even have babies for her!) or attempt to assert their own personhood (which, in non-special siblings, is widely understood as “being an ungrateful bitch”). It’s probably wise to go for the first option. I am not wise. I am easily pissed off and aggrieved, so I always went for the second. Even now, just thinking about it – being seven, eight, nine and expected to play the shitty Pollyanna role while all hell broke loose around me – I can work myself up to a fury. It is, I suspect, particularly hard on girls since we already face the expectation that we should be more empathetic, caring and nurturing than boys, despite the fact that we are human and needy, too (I am glad that at the very least I can have such an opinion; for a female person growing up in a home in which the very idea of male socialisation is taboo – someone such as Jennings’ sister – I imagine it would be a thought crime).
My brother’s “specialness” did not make him rich or famous. It was not a “nice” form of difference. In the small town where we grew up it did, however, make him known. People who met me in the street would not ask how I was; always they asked about my brother, his progress, his interests, his bravery. They’d speak of him as though he was some noble, Esther Rantzen-style Child of Courage, not the tosser who’d kept me awake most of the night because his pillows were “off position” and was now threatening to kill me for creasing one of his copies of the Daily Mail. If he happened to be with me, he’d play along with this role, smiling weakly, proffering a trembling hand to shake while I stood scowling, ever the ungrateful lottery winner. Sorry, does all this sound mean and unsympathetic? In my defence, I would point out that at the very least I saw my brother as a person, one who could be devious as well as vulnerable. I could, like our neighbours, have used him as a mirror in which to reflect myself as a Caring Sympathetic Person Who Talks To The Marginalised. But it’s easier to do that when you don’t actually live with a Marginalised Person. When you live with them, they become actual human beings.
If someone had made a TV documentary of My Family’s Struggle, I would definitely have been relegated to the role of Spoilt Brat Bitch From Hell while my brother played Interesting Troubled Soul With Problems No One Understands. Obviously at times I was a spoilt brat bitch from Hell (it was the only fun I got). But the editing would have made the point much more clearly. And so I wonder about the siblings of stars such as Jazz.
In today’s exploitative documentaries about “special” children, I find my sympathies are with the background kids. If the whole world is rooting for your amazing, brave, unique sibling – perhaps even one who chats merrily to Cosmo about throwing some potential husband’s sperm into your “vag” – any assertion of self-interest whatsoever would send your Spoilt Brat Bitch From Hell quotient off the scale. You must be kind, you must be understanding, you must realise that you are lucky, lucky, lucky and have no understanding of the struggles – the real struggles – of children more special than you. For they are special and you are not.
In writing this I realise how bitter I sound. I am still bitter, in a way. I listen to people complain about “the sandwich generation” (caught between ageing parents and young children) and I find there are no words for people like me (with ageing parents, young children and a sibling whose needs must always be greater than mine). What kind of concoction are we? I know people in my position who nobly opted out of having wanted children on the basis that this would affect their capacity to be the non-special, supportive carer sibling. And now there are may be siblings who opt into bearing children they don’t want in order to perform this presumed supporting role. I couldn’t have done either.
Perhaps it is because I think I’m someone special, too, or at least someone who matters. But shouldn’t everyone be allowed to think that of themselves? Or are some people just receptacles for other people’s dreams?