Lost in yesterday’s celebration of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut as a cultural touchstone for the transgender community was the fact that, at 65, she’s the oldest woman to ever grace the magazine’s cover, making her a gender revolutionary on an entirely different level.
Just like that, Jenner, formerly Bruce, shattered multiple conventions with her stunning cover shot.
The image of a 65-year-old, recently transitioned woman in a satin bodice reminiscent of a Playboy Bunny suit is as glamorous and subversive as Vanity Fair’s 1990 cover of a pregnant and nude Demi Moore, also shot by Leibovitz.
And Leibovitz’s portrait of Caitlyn Jenner stands to be just as iconic and precedent-setting.
The oldest figures to ever be on VF’s cover were pictured as a couple: the Reagans—at 87 (Ronald) and 77 (Nancy).
The last sixty-something woman to appear solo on a Vanity Fair cover was Cher, in December 2010. She had captured the zeitgeist decades earlier and was a sex symbol in the ’80s. Nearly 30 years later—dressed like a burlesque dancer in a black leotard, fishnet stockings, and dagger-like stilettos—she looked defiantly sexy at age 64.
Earlier that year, the magazine featured a headshot of the ageless Meryl Streep—“America’s Greatest Actress”—on its January cover. As Leslie Bennetts wrote in her feature, the 60-year-old actress had become the industry’s “new box-office queen” with hit films like The Devil Wears Prada (2008) and Julie and Julia (2009).
“It’s incredible—I’m 60, and I’m playing the romantic lead in romantic comedies!” Streep told Bennetts, referring to her role that year as a divorced woman enjoying late-in-life sexuality in It’s Complicated.
Streep’s cover wasn’t as sexy as Jenner’s or Cher’s.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Vanity Fair cover in 1992, which celebrated the 60-year-old actress as a tireless crusader fighting AIDS, was more glamorous than sexy. Likewise with Aubrey Hepburn’s 1991 cover at age 62, less than two years before she died.
And Martha Stewart looked youthful and wholesome at 63 on the August 2005 cover, fresh off a five-month prison stint for insider trading.
But the message is the same for all of these Vanity Fair cover stars: Women don’t lose their influence with age, whether they’re Hollywood legends or domestic lifestyle goddesses.
The Caitlyn Jenner cover proves that women can be as sexy and culturally significant in their 60s as they are in their 20s and 30s.
Jenner, Cher, Streep, and others are more than worthy of Vanity Fair’s portrait covers, which are frequently reserved for ingénues or forty-something, not-yet-menopausal stars like Angelina Jolie and Robin Wright.
And for a magazine that has resisted the digital revolution, Vanity Fair dominated the Internet yesterday in the best possible way: with watershed cultural content that will outlast viral hashtags and gimmicky memes for years to come.