Book review: “Being Jazz” by Jazz Jennings

by Heather McNamara

Being Jazz

By Jazz Jennings (and also probably a ghost writer)

Overall: 3/5

Trans narrative: 5/5

Heather McNamaraBeing Jazz is a memoir by Jazz Jennings who’s been a transgender activist almost as long as she’s been alive. She has her own reality show called I Am Jazz on TLC, a few GLAAD awards, and a long public speaking resume. This book is about the struggles and triumphs of her childhood as a transgender girl with a supportive family. She offers stories about the way she came out to her parents pretty much as soon as she was able to talk, her coming out slash fifth birthday party which sounds pretty awesome, and her struggles for acceptance in soccer leagues and schools that didn’t know how to categorize a transgender child before Obama’s guidance came out.

The book is a light and upbeat read. Jazz comes from a well-to-do and incredibly functional and supportive family. Outside of her family, she struggles with a world that isn’t fully able to accept her, but within her family she’s loved and accepted completely. Her father is a lawyer and her mother is a full time parent who holds a master’s degree in counseling. Together, their qualifications make them a formidable team when struggles arise in Jazz’s school and soccer league. I can’t imagine a more ideal family for a transgender child to be born into. Jazz seems to know this, too, often making time to point out how much she loves her family and how much they support in everything she needs.

With a family and circumstances like Jazz’s, many of the darker aspects of so many transgender children’s lives are not in play. She never had to struggle with convincing prideful parents that she should be allowed to be a girl. While she comes from a religious family, the Jewish school she attended as a preschooler was able to be persuaded to accept her as a girl so there wasn’t any devastating point in her life where she wondered as so many do if a god would turn its back on her. There was no talk of conversion therapy or concerted attempt to get her to stop being a girl. There were, however, some struggles that even the most supportive family in the world could not fully overcome. Before Obama released his guidance stating that transgender children should be treated as their genders, children like Jazz struggled with being allowed to use regular bathrooms and the alternatives to the regular bathrooms in Jazz’s case were so cumbersome and impractical that she spent years wetting herself in school.

As I’ve been entrenched in transgender activism for a number of years now, I didn’t think that I would actually pick up any new information from this book, but it did surprise me. Dress codes, for example, had to be modified with a good deal of cajoling from Jazz’s parents simply so that she could be allowed to wear princess shirts. One year, when she was in soccer she was put on a boy’s team and her performance declined not because she wasn’t as good at soccer but because the boys had all been told that they were better at soccer than girls and therefore would keep the ball from her and fail to treat her as an equal. By the end of the season, the feedback she was getting was that while she might be the star of a girls’ team, she couldn’t keep up with the boys. The patriarchy spares no one. There were, too, some mentions of things her parents had to deal with. Other parents would get together and try to organize protests against their child. I can’t even imagine going through that.

But is it a good book? It’s difficult to answer that without first answering the questions: For whom is it written, and why? Before I read it, I couldn’t tell. Having read it, I still don’t know. My best guess is that it’s written for the curious: cisgender, mostly straight people who wonder what it’s like to be or to have a transgender child but want the answer to be something easily digestible. While the writing is more sophisticated than what Jazz probably could have produced on her own (it’s very common in cases like these to employ either a ghost writer or a very heavy-handed editor), the overall style is casual and the voice comes across like a well-rounded teenager. It’s about 250 pages long and has a few pictures of Jazz’s family but there aren’t any real comedic interludes or anything that would particularly appeal to a young reader, but at the same time I felt a little strange reading it as an adult. And why is it written? Well, the magic of Jazz Jennings is that she’s just out there being a functional, well-rounded child from a functional, well-rounded and supportive family. Her family is a microcosm of a future LGBTQ activists imagine. They give us hope and role models for how to be supportive friends and family members and prove that a transgender child can be just as happy and well-rounded as a cisgender child given the right advocates and environment. But she is also a commodity. Her life probably contains a lot more multitudes than the book displays, but the deeper stuff was either withheld for privacy or withheld to make it more consumable, to sell more books, and to get more viewers to her television show. Reading through 250 pages of praise for her friends and family and exciting accomplishments for her life, it’s hard to say that the book ever really breaks that commercial barrier and enters into the realm of the real and the vulnerable. Is her life really that great? Or has it been edited down into a Disney movie? I really don’t know.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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