Talk show host Wendy Williams last week again drew some wrath for transgender-related comments — but this time some sloppy reporting from an online outlet, which was picked up elsewhere, made the situation worse.
At issue was Williams’s discussion of the change in the appearance of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and TV personality from Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The media has buzzed for months now about what some describe as his overtly feminine presentation, although Jenner himself has never stated that he is in a gender transition or addressed whether he considers himself trans. Nonetheless, Williams’s producers chose Jenner’s latest femme look as a subject for her show’s “Hot Topics” segment Wednesday. His pink nail polish “is the proof, you know, he’s on his way, you know, to being a woman,” Williams said, quoting one of her backstage colleagues.
Photos posted last week by X17 showed Jenner wearing dark pink polish on neatly manicured fingernails. Then on her show, Williams talked about that and a laundry list of other changes he’s made to his appearance, with images of Jenner projected onto the giant video screen behind her: “He started by shaving down his Adam’s apple. Then we’ve seen him with a beautiful blowout. ... You know, he seems to be going through something. But to add fuel to the fire, to celebrate his 65th birthday, he treated himself to a bright pink manicure.”
She added, “He at least waited for his kids to grow up so he doesn’t have to go to PTA meetings with a shaved Adam’s Apple and a blowout and pink nails and a cigarette. You know what I’m saying? ... It’s a lot easier for rich and famous Bruce Jenner to do this than it would be for you guys, you know, or us guys, you know on Main Street. Could you imagine going to parent-teacher conference, you know, with a shaved Adam’s Apple and pink [nails], picking your kids up from Girl Scout meetings and stuff like that?”
Williams did make a lengthy effort to clarify her point by expressing her pride in what she called society’s “accomplishment” in coming to terms with people transitioning genders or expressing their sexual orientation. She then told her audience, “You may not like it, but you’re damn sure outnumbered if you say something about it.” She also closed the segment by saying she was happy for Jenner for being “able to live in his own truth” as well as offering him a birthday wish and her “congratulations on being happy regardless of what everybody else thinks.”
The Wrap reported on Williams’s comments and got a response from GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis, who said, “To suggest that a person’s nail polish color or hairstyle would inflict harm on their children is just ludicrous. What does inflict harm, however, is gross and invasive speculation about a person’s gender identity.” But The Wrap’s report had misquoted Williams, adding words such as “Thank God he waited” and “this transition or whatever it is,” then fed those misquoted words, among others, to GLAAD.
Access Hollywood then pointed out the misquote and ran footage of Williams expressing what reporter Liz Hernandez called Williams’s “tolerance” for Jenner. A GLAAD spokesperson told Access Hollywood that Ellis’s comment was in response to The Wrap’s misquote. The Wrap did update its copy and now notes, “A previous version of this post slightly misquoted Williams.” But some online sources that picked up the story are still carrying the original incorrect language.
While many activists have called Williams out as transphobic, and some social media commenters point out that Jenner may have been wearing pink nail polish as a gesture for breast cancer awareness, she does have her defenders. “What GLAAD is right about is that it’s not nice to speculate on a person’s gender identity this way, because it’s similar to privacy invasion,” Softpedia lifestyle editor Elena Gorgan wrote Friday. “On the other hand, Bruce is a celebrity — and Wendy is a talk show host who also does celebrity gossip, so she’s just doing her job.”
Not so, said A&E’s Shipping Wars producer Woody Woodbeck, a gay man who wrote an open letter to Williams on Facebook that was then picked up by Pop Dust and other websites. He told Williams, “You have NO idea what Bruce is going through (if anything at all) and clearly you need to brush up on how to talk about people in transition.” In a follow-up interview with Pop Dust, he said, “Whatever journey, if any, that Bruce is on should be treated with a gentle heart and hand. Wendy has done the exact opposite for a couple of laughs.”
This is not the first time Williams has been criticized for her handling of transgender topics; a few months ago she apologized for hosting a panel discussion in which people with no particular expertise talked about whether trans women should compete with other women in sports. But she characterizes herself as an LGBT ally and last month participated in Spirit Day, a stand against anti-LGBT bullying. Producers for her show have not commented to media on the Jenner segment to date.
One reporter, though, found some humor in the situation. New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi summed up her take on Williams’s comments about how devastating Jenner’s changes might be to his children with a one-liner: “More devastating even than marrying Kris Jenner?”
Below, watch the original segment from The Wendy Williams Show and the Access Hollywood segment to make up your mind.