July's cover of Vanity Fair looks much like any other Vanity Fair cover: soft lighting, soft angles, a woman in a seductive pose wearing a wry half-smile. Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz shot it. But it's not like any other cover. It's the cover that unveiled Bruce Jenner's complete transformation into Caitlyn Jenner. It's the cover that solidifies Jenner's status as an American icon.
Caitlyn is a new kind of icon
Sure, Bruce Jenner was already an American icon — an Olympic gold medalist who was not only recognized as the World's Greatest Athlete but well liked as a person — but Caitlyn Jenner is a different kind of icon. Vanity Fair's decision to put her on their cover marks a moment in time when the shifting cultural dialogue — this time, around the acceptance and rights of transgender people — has actually been right in step with the mainstream media. Jenner has been in the public eye for the majority of her life, and has made the difficult, but important decision to embrace her identity, even if it means risking the acceptance of a public that's grown up with one very specific idea of her.
And for the generation of people who didn't know Bruce Jenner as an Olympian, but rather as the soft-spoken father on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Caitlyn is a sign that gender transition is not wrong or surreal, but can be just one part of a complex life. Jenner gives shape to an identity that much of the world is still hugely uncomfortable with, and America, the country that loves a good origin story, already knows the whole thing.