People all of the world are analyzing the amazing, perverse and strange legacy of Michael Jackson—and the changes in his appearance over the years are among the many (many, many) topics to discuss. Although born a black male, at the end of his life, he appeared to be closer to a white woman. Some theorize he wanted to look like his friend and fellow child star, Elizabeth Taylor. Others suggest that he was attempting to escape from the negative associations of a painful childhood. Still others simply dismiss him as crazy.
I don’t think anyone will ever know what was going on in Michael’s mind. Perhaps even he didn’t know. But his physical changes point to a larger truth--one he sang about in “Black or White” a song that not only responds to the various speculations about his ethnic identity, but serves an anthem to our ultimate oneness. That truth is simply this: race and gender aren’t fixed concepts. With money and time enough, they can be altered to suit whatever notion of identity we choose. Furthermore, what we appear to others to be on the outside may not always speak to the truth of how we define ourselves.
Michael Jackson had money enough to blend both race and gender lines in a way most of us don’t. But there are many of us who have met a person in some aspect of a gender transformation, either from male to female, or from female to male. Just today, in a photographic essay published in the Washington Post Magazine, I saw some images chronicling the transformation of a young woman from her childhood as “Anna” to her young adulthood as “Logan.” Just a few weeks ago, Cher’s daughter (formerly “Chastity” now “Chaz” Bono) announced her/his sex change procedures. In most urban centers, if only on the street, or shopping or in a restaurant, most of us have seen someone in the process of a sex-change. We—and I include myself,unfortunately—react to them with a double take of confusion, with whispers and stares.
Transgendered people challenge our notions about gender and identity—in the same way Michael Jackson challenged our notions about racial identity. Transgendered people get the same reactions of horror, disgust and discomfort as the morphing images of Michael’s lightening skin and surgically altered face. But our discomfort or disgust with either transgendered persons or with Michael’s racial ambiguities has nothing to do with the object and everything to do with the subject. In other words, it’s not about them. It’s about us.
We like to believe there are some rock-bottom certainties about people that can be determine based solely on appearance alone. There’s comfort in this: it helps us to order and categorize our world. Transgendered people remind us that our categorizes are often too limited—if not flat out wrong. Some people are able to readjust their paradigms to include new categories—and others are so threatened by alternative possibilities that they react with condemnation.
I don’t pretend to be well-versed in the science, but many transgendered people say that all they are doing is changing their outsides to match how they feel inside. Put that way, I can relate to their struggle more easily. Any woman reaching her mid-40s or early 50s who has looked in the mirror, considered her face and/or body and wished for plastic surgery should be able to understand. On the inside, you’re still 25… but the outside? Not so much.
It’s a poor analogy, I know, but it’s something to think of both when meeting transgendered people—and in contemplating the legacy of Michael Jackson. Perhaps, his changes in his outward appearance reflected the desire to bring his physical side in line with his mental image.
Or perhaps---work with me on this--- he found all of these concepts—race and gender and age—too limiting. Perhaps simply acknowledged that skin and hair and noses and chins were simply “costumes” to be changed at will. Perhaps, if he had chosen to explain it, he might have said that what he was inside inside reached far beyond any outer expression. The music in him expressed beyond young or old, male or female, black or white.
Whether it was his intention or not, this “unlimited identity” may be one of his greatest legacies. In both his music and his physicality, he bridged cultures. If you loved him or loathed him, you had to acknowledge his uniqueness—no matter if you’re black or white.