And The Winner Is ...
While a decision by Miss Universe to now allow transgender contestants to compete has been welcome by some, others are wondering whether greater inclusivity in beauty pageants really translates to greater equality. Serkan Ozturk reports.
The most beautiful female in the universe could very well be a transgender woman. After having been formed way back in 1952 by Californian clothing company Pacific Mills, the Miss Universe competition renowned for its focus on contestants appearing in swimsuits and evening gowns will from next year officially allow transgender women to take part.
It follows an embarrassing backdown last week by competition organisers and its flamboyant owner Donald Trump in the face of public pressure after a decision was taken in late March to kick out 23-year-old blonde Canadian beauty, Jenna Talackova, for not being “naturally born female” as stipulated by the pageant rules.
The American property magnate was forced to change the rules after tens of thousands of people and fans of the competition petitioned Miss Universe and activists from the US-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) got involved. The Miss Universe Organisation will also now allow Talackova – who underwent gender affirmation surgery four years ago – to compete at this year’s Canadian finals “provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions”.
Some gay rights groups are heralding the change as similar to when the Olympics and the Girl Scouts of America first allowed transgender people to participate in their organisations, while Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organisation, said following the decision that the issue was taken very seriously.
“We have a long history of supporting equality for all women,” she said.
And there’s the rub, say many trans activists as well as feminists, who believe that a competition that limits entry to females aged between 18 and 26 who have never had a child and is judged almost solely on the basis of looks will never truly be a friend to women, trans or otherwise.
Dr Tracie O’Keefe, from Sex And Gender Education Australia, told SX this week that despite the change in pageant rules it would be difficult to call Miss Universe a particular liberating experience.
“It’s coming into the 20th Century, and I mean 20th and not 21st Century.
“Most trans women wouldn’t be interested in being involved in such pageants, but they would be interested in more civil rights,” O’Keefe said.
“Jumping up and down in your heels on a stage and being judged for that is a not a big step forward.”
Asked why she believed Trump and his organisation acted in the manner it did, O’Keefe suggested that it was most likely a decision to keep the pageant relevant. Last year’s television audience for the Miss Universe finals drew its lowest US viewing audience since the 1970s, with only slightly more than five million people tuning in.
“Trump is not a friend of either feminism or the sex and gender diverse (SGD) community,” O’Keefe said.
For her part, the statuesque model at the centre of the controversy has said her newfound fame will be used to help others facing discrimination.
“I feel like the universe, the creator just put me in this position as an advocate,” Talackova told Barbara Walters in a recent televised interview on ABC News.
“And now it’s like this, and I’ll take that position. If it’s helping anybody else, my story and my actions, then I feel great about it.”
Sally Goldner, spokesperson for Transgender Victoria, told SX that while many questions remained regarding the place of pageants such as Miss Universe in today’s society and the sexism they may promote, the public backlash itself has been encouraging.
“I believe the efforts of trans and allies logically have played some part in the change of stance,” Goldner said.
“It is a sign of greater acceptance that trans people will not be denied their affirmed identity – denial often being the first form of prejudice and discrimination.”
Goldner however doesn’t believe that trans beauty pageants such as Miss International Queen held in Thailand, of which Talackova was named as runner-up in 2010, will be made erroneous anytime soon.
“I think trans beauty pageants will remain while there is stigma and a need to counter that,” she said.
“Who knows – we can dream – trans pageants one day might be seen as a celebration in some way of how awesome trans or SGD people are rather than as a response to negativity? Or maybe pageants for all body shapes, sizes, sexes and genders all together?”
O’Keefe told SX that while many trans women in Australia and around the world lack basic rights and are routinely denied equal opportunities in housing, employment and medical care, people such as Trump could be doing more.
“If Trump were to set aside a number of jobs for trans women in the many companies he runs, that would be positive discrimination and much welcomed,” O’Keefe said.
“Of course there would be a few trans women interested in taking part in Miss Universe but there is a danger that the people who may now enter the pageant will look like a parody, as many of the women involved already do.”
[Pictured] Jenna Talackova (right), a would-be Miss Universe contestant, shows her Canadian passport, as a proof that she is a female, during a news conference with her attorney in Los Angeles earlier this month. Talackova, 23, was disqualified in March as a finalist from the upcoming Miss Universe Canada, which is part of the Miss Universe Pageant because she was born male. Miss Universe organisation has since reversed their decision on disallowing transgender contestant to compete as long as they meet the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions. Photo: Getty Images