Beauty pageants, long a target of feminist critique, are sites where femininity is defined, packaged, evaluated, and standardized, along with Western “virtues” such as individualism, whiteness, and patriotism. They are regarded as culturally conservative and hegemonizing events from which non-white women, women with disabilities, and even non-Christians have historically been overtly or tacitly excluded (Gardner 2009). So when the first openly transgender person, a young trans woman named Jenna Talackova, was admitted as a contestant in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant after a public appeal, a number of currents immediately collided. Trans people have suffered more violence and marginalization at the hands of Western society than just about any group that pageants excluded; today, trans rights are widely regarded as the vanguard of progressive causes, anticipated in some ways by gay and lesbian rights, albeit in uneasy alliance with feminism (e.g., Enke 2012). Transwomen in particular have been alienated from or openly derided by many branches of feminism, and are often accused of embodying the very feminine stereotypes that feminists have worked to disrupt. For these reasons I find the Talackova case a challenging litmus test of our attitudes toward both beauty pageants and trans emancipation. What does Talackova’s participation in Miss Universe signify for the struggle to dismantle punishing gender-based beauty standards, and move beyond reductive gender binaries?
Jenna Talackova entered Miss Universe Canada in 2012 without any intention of disclosing her gender identity or history. When she was outed as trans and disqualified from the event, she appealed the decision, and eventually had it reversed. Talackova’s public battle to gain the right to compete in Miss Universe launched her to near heroic status; over 30,000 people quickly signed a petition on change.org to support her bid. She was soon named one of three grand marshals of the 2012 Vancouver Pride Parade (Da Silva 2012). Now, she is one of the most visible trans activists in Canada and is leading a petition of the World Health Organization to remove “transsexualism” from its list of mental disorders (http://jennatalackova.ca/jenna-talackova-petitions-who-watch-and-support/). Not everyone heralded Talackova’s successful appeal as a step forward for trans rights; as Tami Starlight, the executive director of the Vancouver Transgender Day of Remembrance Society, explains: “This whole deal is complicated at best… She’s fighting to get into a space in a system that is really terrible in general…I feel that the community does a disservice by supporting and applauding this kind of nonsense” (Starlight quoted in Hui 2012). Starlight’s reaction echoes Viviane Namaste’s warning that “some transgendered people are involved in regressive political work and it needs to be denounced” (Namaste 2005: 9-10).
But to dismiss out of hand a trans woman’s inclusion in a conventional women’s beauty pageant is also to miss the complicated relationships between beauty standards and gender diversity, and to risk perpetuating transphobic attitudes toward feminine trans women. Trans woman Julia Serano notes that “‘artificial,’ ‘contrived,’ and ‘frivolous’ are practically built into our cultural understanding of femininity,” making trans women – who are seen to be “imitating” women – “doubly artificial” (Serano 2012: 171, 173)1. Talackova is particularly susceptible to such allegations, not only for being a femme trans woman, but also for enthusiastically embracing the accoutrements of femininity that are well known to drive success in beauty pageants: make-up, hair extensions, high heels, etc. An unqualified critique of her fondness for these ultra-normative beauty standards may deny the possibility that she has an authentic feminine identity that we owe recognition.
The relationship between normative feminine beauty standards and non-normative gender identities can vary tremendously depending on the cultural and political context. Within trans and LGBT communities, women who appear ultra-femme may not be taken seriously, as Serano explains: “When I first began attending and performing …at queer and feminist events back in 2002 and 2003, I definitely played down my femme side…I honestly do not think that I would have been accepted…within San Francisco’s queer and feminist communities if I had attended those first events dressed in an especially feminine manner” (2012: 173). Yet other trans women’s experiences point to the opposite hierarchy of gender expression. Alaina Hardie explains that, upon her immersion in the trans community, “at the top of the hierarchy [were] the post-operative, passing, conventionally attractive transsexuals, usually male-to-females. These were MTFs who were, by current cultural standards, beautiful, or at least attractive” (2006: 124). Those who didn’t “pass” as feminine were “all the way at the bottom” (Hardie 2006:124). These varying experiences of the legitimacy of femininity among MTFs should caution us to avoid overly general assumptions about the meaning of feminine beauty standards.
Serano’s point about the equation between femininity and artifice reminds us that femme trans identity is anything but artificial: it is an expression, in fact, of authenticity, misinterpreted as pretence through sexist and transphobic prejudices. Yet beauty queens – of any birth sex – exhibit a fairly uncritical acceptance of coercive standards of femininity and the pressure to artificially “enhance” female embodiment. By drawing attention to the difficulty of achieving the ideal woman’s body, a trans woman’s inclusion helps to reveal the pain, cost, time, and artistry involved in the creation of each and every contestant’s appearance. Cosmetic surgery is not only allowed, but ubiquitous in high-level beauty pageants, especially the Miss Universe series. In fact, “[i]n several American states the winners are given free unlimited plastic surgery as part of the prize package” (Teotonio, 2012). This casts the “artifice” to which Serano refers in a stark light. Beauty pageant contestants may undergo breast augmentation to better approximate their ideal female appearance. Trans women may undergo breast augmentation to overcome their faultily assigned birth sex. In the case of someone like Talackova, we can only assume the two purposes mesh.
Contemplating the construction of Talackova’s femininity through sex reassignment surgery (SRS, also known as gender confirmation surgery) alongside the construction of other contestants’ femininity raises further questions about elective cosmetic surgery, which feminists have long critiqued as a form of internalized sexism (Morgan 1991). Consider that labiaplasty is a critical component of sex reassignment for many trans women, and also an elective beauty procedure that is growing in popularity among younger and younger cisgender women (as described here: http://beautydemands.blogspot.ca/2017/06/labiaplasty-female-genital-mutilation_19.html). We may regard these as fundamentally different phenomena, however comparable the anatomical result: the former is politically progressive, the latter a perverse co-optation of feminism. As Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer (2006) argue, beauty pageants and cosmetic surgery are commonly presented as individual choices facilitated by liberalism, thus deflecting feminist worries about the coerciveness of beauty standards and the “colonization” of women’s minds. Meanwhile, SRS is only recognized as legitimate by the medical establishment when it is described precisely as a non-choice, as a physical “cure” to a mental “disorder.”2 Where is the line between non-medical and medical aesthetic interventions, particularly when a trans woman is an aspiring beauty queen? While I don’t think Talackova’s case can resolve such questions, it may provide a cultural window for rethinking beauty pressures on cisgender women and what it means to normalize trans identities and aesthetics.
That a beauty pageant may be used as a venue for mainstreaming queer identities is not necessarily surprising. Trans people, as well as gay men, drag queens, and other gender outlaws, have always used dress-up and performance as a safe space to express their identities, a mode of artistic creation, a means of employment, or all of the above. It is in fact the ostensibly apolitical, women-only version of the pageant that is arguably more anomalous. In contrast to burlesque, where the fluid interplay between performativity, social critique, and sex work has long been acknowledged, contemporary beauty pageants reinforce the most regressive gender and beauty norms. Despite the scanty bikinis and suggestive poses, pageants purport to further wholesome, “American” values, and to reward women who embody a certain conception of youthful feminine virtue. To this day Miss Universe rules explicitly exclude women who are married or pregnant.
So it is not seeing a trans person in extravagant evening gowns and make-up that is in itself a cultural statement, but rather the inclusion of such a person in the binaristic, consumerist world of women-only pageants. Talackova’s experience invites contrast with those of trans women who participate in designated queer or trans beauty pageants that mimic the Miss Universe variety, such as the balls that thrived in New York through the 1980s, or the ongoing Miss Galaxy Beauty Pageant in Tonga, Polynesia. Consciously playing with their exclusion from mainstream culture, these alternative beauty pageants may satirize popular pageant themes while celebrating an aesthetics that is more distinctly ‘queer,’ and thus validate the otherness of non-normative sex/gender identities. As researcher Niko Besnier notes, in the trans Tongan pageant,“exaggeration and artifice [are] de rigueur, although not all participants and audience members are in positions to give these patterns nonliteral readings” (2002: 540). The Miss Galaxy pageant runs parallel to a traditional beauty pageant, the “Miss Heilala pageant,” which feeds into the Miss Universe circuit; both are embedded in a larger annual festival celebrating Tongannese culture and identity. The conspicuous contrast between these two pageants facilitates opportunities for irony and pastiche, as well as political awareness-raising3 , wherein the trans women can mark their alienation while also aspiring to some of what cisgender women enjoy. The relationship, in other words, is self-conscious; Miss Heilala pageant contestants, for instance, are also known as “the real misses” (Besnier 2002). The beauty standards may be largely indistinguishable between the two parallel pageants, but they take on different meanings when applied to a conspicuously queer pool of contestants.
Talackova, by contrast, experienced this style of pageant as alienating and wanted earnestly to participate in a non-queer (and hence, non-self-conscious) version:
I was in Thailand and I competed in a transgendered [sic] pageant and I wasn’t what they were looking for. And that really got me down because they weren’t seeing me as who I was. They wanted something else. They wanted a drag queen. (Bascaramurty 2012)
It is telling to see Talackova articulate her displacement in the Thailand trans pageant in terms of their selection criteria – much as many women would feel devalued by the selection criteria of standard pageants – and feel more at home in Miss Universe Canada:
I’m a full woman and it wasn’t right and it was a beautiful moment when I realized, it wasn’t my fault that I lost because I was ugly or blah blah blah. It’s because they were looking for something different. (Bascaramurty 2012)
In describing herself as a “full woman,” Talackova intimates that the Miss Universe beauty pageant is her natural home, or at least the club to which she should seek admission. She has broken through an exclusive barrier, entering a space never before open to trans women, yet her inclusion is predicated on conformity to criteria that would ironically make most “natural-born females” ineligible for participation. Talackova’s visibility thus to some extent normalizes trans identity, but only in the way most palatable to a largely misogynistic culture. More revolutionary would be to see what happens when pageants and cultural norms are opened up to genuine gender and aesthetic diversity.
Teotonio, Isabel. 2012. Are Beauty Pageant Contestants Who Get Plastic Surgery Cheating? Toronto Star, May 18. http://www.thestar.com/life/2012/05/18/are_beauty_pageant_contestants_who_get_plastic_surgery_cheating.html
1 She adds: “in our culture, masculine expression seems to arise out of who one simply is, whereas feminine expression is always viewed as an act or a performance” (Serano 180).↩
2 In Canada, trans individuals seeking to obtain approval for funded procedures need to obtain a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (a mental disorder listed in the DSM-IV) from two government-approved specialists – a situation that trans activists have been challenging for decades because of the way it pathologizes trans people and denies them self-determination↩
3 Besnier notes: “it is through the pageant that many Tongans form knowledge of the [fakaleiti/trans] identity” (2002: 536).↩