Miss Universe: a laudable honorific. Mistress of not just our lowly solar system but intergalactically so, outranking even Miss Whirlpool Galaxy. Reigning over the totality of matter and energy, Miss Universe reaches across the darkness to gather stars for her astronomical tiara.
Many of us have heard the story of Jenna Talackova’s disqualification from Miss Universe Canada for not having been a “naturally born female,” and Donald Trump’s recent announcement that Talackova will be allowed to compete, “provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions.”
The story hadn’t interested me until I began thinking about the role of beauty pageants and that niggling phrase “naturally born female.” Having dismissed the pageants as patriarchal relics that objectify women, I didn’t think it much of a coup that transwomen could compete. Any institution should rectify its discriminatory practices, but what will “the transgender community” achieve with this inclusion?
Beauty pageants have had long histories of exclusion. Early Miss America contestants were required to fill out a biological questionnaire to determine ancestry, and rules stated, “Contestants must be in good health and of the white race.” Miss America contestants had to be able to perform a fantasy of white womanhood, an impossibility that even white women could not achieve. So makeup artists and lighting directors powdered skin and bleached hair to construct an incandescent perversity of white womanhood. With the advent of televised pageants in the ’50s, film stocks and processing techniques further defined whiteness as an invisible power; whiteness, then, was a touchstone, a baseline for the ideological control of white America. Though not alone, Miss America pageantry aided solidifying a politics of exclusion.
In 1985, Laura Martínez-Herring became the first Latina to win the Miss USA pageant. As Miss USA, she was asked to be the featured speaker at a naturalization ceremony at which her mother, among others, was becoming a U.S. citizen. In her speech, Martínez-Herring had this to say: “Becoming a U.S. citizen does not mean you may not take pride in your culture or be proud of your roots or love your people. … It simply means that you are now loyal to this wonderful country that is full of opportunities and will support the Constitution.”
Moving away from the exclusionary politics of early Miss America, Miss USA created a tension between allowing contestants to maintain a particular heritage while participating in an industry that actively erases that identity. For example, Martínez-Herring’s pageant director sent her to voice classes to “soften her Spanish accent,” so that she would better fit the fantasy of American womanhood.
In the global context, largely U.S.-produced pageants have given rise to political fervor. In 1996, Denny Méndez, a black Caribbean immigrant, won the Miss Italy pageant. Her crowning raised public debate about national identity. Two pageant judges were suspended “for saying that Méndez, as a black woman, could not represent Italian beauty.” In contrast, the Miss World pageant in Bangalore, India, “had a nation in an uproar” when feminists and nationalists decried the contest as a corrupting Western force that demeaned women.
In last 30 years, pageants have become places of contradiction, in part because they have replaced exclusion from membership with a promise of unity, but exclusion from power often remains the effect. Predicated on tolerance, these gestures toward diversification have been anemic. We see a similar rhetoric at play in debates about the same-sex marriage amendment in North Carolina: Tolerance is used to sympathize with the struggles of gays and lesbians, but not all sympathizers are willing to give lesbians and gays the right to marry. Tolerate difference, but don’t let difference change the status quo.
Many journalists have written positive stories about Jenna Talackova’s inclusion in Miss Universe, going as far as to suggest that changed policy is advancement in human rights. Transgender political organizations have called Trump’s decision a triumph, with many leaders rallying around Talackova’s induction into the “common culture of women” as a goodwill ambassador of the transgender community.
Not surprisingly, Talackova’s beauty has been described as the obvious reason for her inclusion. Even Talackova’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, told the media, “Just look at her.” Beauty is supposedly the qualifier for all Miss Universe contestants—although beauty is not an absolute thing, but a relative one. Apparently for Talackova, beauty means not only that she is beautiful but that she is also “naturally” a woman.
In pageants, beauty is used to reframe politics of identity—such as race or sex—as merely aesthetic. The inverted romanticism of “beauty” is reworked into a socio-political prettiness that promotes tolerance rather than transformation.
Jenna Talackova, Caroline Cossey, Isis King and Lea T have been media darlings partly because they are “pretty,” which is also code for “passing” unquestionably as the women they are. The euphemism is that they are “successful women.” Their prettiness exclaims, “See, transwomen can be attractive,” because the stereotype is that transwomen are anything but beautiful. And, problematically, the attractiveness of these women suggests an authenticity of womanhood. Regardless of prettiness, transwomen are women, but “passing” has a particular privilege among transwomen, a privilege not always acknowledged.
What, then, does the social acceptance of passing transwomen mean for other transwomen who do not fulfill social expectations of prettiness? Or who do not wish to “pass” at all? Every transwoman, even those who “pass,” has experienced the forensic fascination of an onlooker who scalpels away at your gender to see “who you really are.” It’s an excruciating experience, and can be violently so. It isn’t just a judging “eye,” which declares you non-passing, but an aggressive act of stripping you of your humanity. I have had it happen at dinner parties and in classrooms. The onlooker’s eyes give up all social decorum and stare unblinkingly at you, studying your body and presentation for inconsistencies.
You catch them looking; for a moment they don’t notice, lost as they are in their own private study, then catching your eye they quickly avert their gaze in that guilty gesture of “I am not doing what we both know I am doing.” It is difficult to describe how pernicious and commonplace this activity is, even among those we might call friends.
So, I am not sure how far we have all advanced with Talackova’s victory, but surely we will all have to re-question ourselves as to who is a “naturally born woman.” And wonder if this old question will ever uncoil itself from our social lives and slither away into history. While I am happy for Talackova, I don’t think I will be watching Miss Universe this year or next.