Beauty Pageant Row Over MTF Transsexual
Jenna Talackova has become the first known transsexual to enter and be disqualified from the Donald Trump-owned Miss Universe Canada competition. Once again, beauty pageants become a platform for cultural comment.
By Kate Gould
Bitching on the beauty pageant circuit is hardly news, but it's become a little more gender-political as Jenna Talackova has managed to gain media coverage as the first transsexual to enter (that anyone knows of) and be disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada competition for failing to meet the main requirement of the pageant - that she be female. The other requirements for entry into the Donald Trump-owned extravaganza are that the women have never been pregnant or married. If he could get away with it, I think Donald would be demanding vestal virgins to worship at the temple of Trump, but he has to make do with the possibility that the entrants might be virgins.
Jenna Talackova preparing for an interview
Much of the response to her disqualification has been in support of Jenna - it's a violation of her rights as a woman, transgender and transsexual women should be able to do anything a woman can etc - and has been dominated by male journalists drooling over her long legs, huge breasts, and enormous hair. You might think, it's just a beauty pageant, who gives a shit, and, to a point, I'd agree with you. But I happen to think that beauty pageants represent a retrogressive step in the quest for sexual equality, pitting women against one another, from birth in the case of baby pageants, based on little more than their ability to say "world peace", wave, slink, pout and smile. There are more rewarding abilities on which the many millions could be spent fostering. Beauty pageants are a social phenomenon that reaches into the far corners of this solar system and the next if the Miss Universe title is to be taken literally and are, therefore, culturally significant. Girls (and some boys) dream of entering them, journalists write about them, a fortune is made promoting them, no matter how fleeting their fame, people follow the stories of the winners, and I'm here writing a piece about them. So, as a starting point for debate on the issue of what makes gender, they're as relevant a platform for cultural comment as any other.
April 10 2012: Jenna Talackova was reinstated in Miss Universe Canada pageant. Though she was allowed back in on April 2 after initial disqualification, Talackova held out for a larger rule change, arguing that in the future no other transgender woman should have to face what she did.
The problem seems to be a matter of defining femaleness. If being female is defined as having two X chromosomes, then Jenna isn't a woman and all the huge hair, bee-stung lips, breast implants and man-made vagina aren't going to make her one. But sexuality is complex and our sex is far more than the sum of our biological parts or our DNA helix. Jenna's battle to be accepted as a Miss Universe Canada contestant raised some debate about gender and who's defined as what, but what doesn't seem to have made it into the conversation is her will to be female. Ask any man what he thinks of the idea of having his testicles and all, or part, of his penis removed and it's likely to be a bit of a conversation-stopper. Whether the pageant officials took this into account in their decision to reinstate Jenna as a contestant is unknown, but I imagine it would provide pretty powerful evidence of her desire to be regarded as a woman.
Jenna Talackova with her mother
Not wanting to be male doesn't automatically qualify a person as female - the female gender isn't just a depository for anyone who didn't want to be a boy - but the surgical procedures required for gender reassignment are proof, if any is needed, of what a man will put himself through in order to be acknowledged as a woman. It takes dedication, soul-searching and the courage of conviction. Having once had a penis should be no impediment to a woman's acceptance by others as female.
For all her efforts, Jenna deserves some reward. To me, pageants are a catfight with hairspray and g-strings, but if the Miss Universe Canada is what she's after, then good on her. She didn't make it to the finals, but she may have set some kind of precedent for MTF transsexuals wishing to enter female beauty pageants. At the very least she brought some glamour to the gender definition debate.
The roid-fest that is Mr Universe is running sometime later this year. I'd be curious to know the reception a FTM transsexual would receive if he attempted to enter. For all we know - talk of muscle structure aside - perhaps one already has.