How beauty pageants view transwomen

From Indy:

by Eva Hayward
May 09, 2012

Reposted with permission

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.

5 Responses to “How beauty pageants view transwomen”

  1. fionnualabk Says:

    The author of this article strips Talackova of a little bit of her humanity herself by using the term “transwoman” to describe her. That word is just a pet peeve of mine.

    • Suzan Says:

      Except she wouldn’t be in the competition at all without GLAAD and Gloria Allred.

      Imperfect as this working together is it beats purity and not having powerful people on your side.

  2. quenyar Says:

    I have always viewed beauty pageants, at least major beauty pageants, as being places to show off manufactured beauty: the attempts of people to come close to an artificial standard of “beauty” that is not human. The women who participate have spent most of their young lives obsessing about their bodies, modifying them, optiminzing them, making them over into a simulcrum of this aritifical ideal that doesn’t exist in nature. In my mind it is like fashioning an artificial rose that is to be judged on its ability to surpass the beauty of any real rose.

    The cute film Mis Congeniality portrayed a natural woman shoe horning herself into this role… something that in reality would be impossible. You just can’t transmogrify yourself from a normally functioning person into a 24/7 body-obsessed beauty queen overnight. It would have been only marginally more difficult for her 110% male partner (in the film) to transition over a weekend and become a contestant.

    As such, there is a lot of consistent detail between beauty pageant contestants and transwomen. I say transwomen here as opposed to transsexual woman, because I am meaning those individuals who were born male and are not only desiring to be regarded actually and casually by the world as women, but who aspire to be something like a reincarnation of Maralyn Monroe. They are body-obsessed – having dozens of corrective surgeries (or more if their pockets are deep enough), enduring all manner of painful adjustments and living every day with the goal of attaining some kind of self-inspired perfection. Their whole life is a beauty pageant, just like the profesional contestant women.

    • Suzan Says:

      When I was a kid, I think it was in about 1959. I watched the Miss America Pageant. I so wanted to be in a pageant like that. I was already practicing to become a woman, dressing up every chance I got.

      In reality I was more the Gidget, type. A bit of a tomboy, I love skiing and swimming and hiking through the woods.

      But the night I watched Miss America I cried because I wanted to be pretty like that.

      When I saw the pictures of April Ashley and read her story I knew that doing something like that was possible.

      By 1967 I was a hippie. I saw the movie “Blow-Up” and couldn’t decide if I want to be a model in front of a camera or a photographer behind the camera.

      When I came out in 1969 I was pretty to the point causing other sisters to be jealous.

      By 1974 I was both a model and a photographer.

      I’m Facebook friends with both Calpernia Addams and Nina Arsenault. Nina has made her molding of her body and image into an art form.

      I think she is much neater than those who condemn that sort of thing.

      Somewhere along the line feminism lost touch with the idea that some women are audacious about doing certain stuff.

      Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” is painfully out dated. But I remember her condemning a woman who had dropped out of school to be part of the Beat Movement.

      Some stuff that the feminists have pushed comes off very, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  3. tinagrrl Says:

    Oh for gosh sakes — how many real people like this do you know — “They are body-obsessed – having dozens of corrective surgeries (or more if their pockets are deep enough), enduring all manner of painful adjustments and living every day with the goal of attaining some kind of self-inspired perfection. Their whole life is a beauty pageant, just like the profesional contestant women.”?

    Every person I have known that searched after surgery after surgery – all in the desire to be “beautiful”, all in the desire to “pass” better and better – ended up going too far. They end up looking like folks who have had too much surgery — that goes for natal women as well as WBT’s.

    Just look at some of the aging actresses who have done as much as is possible to remain “young”. They all look like they’ve had too much done AND, after a while they all end up looking almost the same. As an example, Carol Burnett no longer looks like herself — she looks good, but looks like so many other people.

    There is only so much you can do.

    To damn “trans-women” for going too far, while keeping a “respectful silence ” about our aging TV and Hollywood “beauty queens” when they start looking like a caricature of themselves is another form of bigotry.

    By the way — about all the trans folks who do not “pass” — as long as you live in the same place, interact with a whole bunch of folks who “knew you when”, it will take a long time to “pass” – if you ever do. For gosh sakes, when people look at your daughter and can say — “she takes after her father”, that means they can see the common features, the shape of eyes, nose, lips, cheekbones, ears, etc., etc., etc. So, no matter how much you FFS you have, those who knew you before will be able to see the “old” you.

    If you are among strangers — they do not have that frame of reference — they just see the you that is presented now.

    Also — when many of us look in the mirror, we tend to see the “old” one. It takes time to stop that.

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