Progressive Pageantry? - Women's Week


Jenna Talackova. Photo from her personal Facebook page.

Written by Margaret Jacobi

Often criticized for being an institution that propagates objectification of women, pageants, specifically the Miss Universe 2012 pageant, might actually be making positive strides this year for women’s rights.

After consultations with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD), the Miss Universe pageant officials recently decided to allow transgendered women to vie for the crown.

The organization, run by Donald Trump, received exorbitant amounts of media attention on March 23rd following an initial decision to disqualify 23-year-old Jenna Talackova from the upcoming pageant, citing a rule that she must be a “naturally born” woman.

Talackova, a 6-foot-1 inch blonde Canadian, born as a male, has said she knew she was female “as soon as she was conscious.” She began hormone therapy at the age of 14, had sexual reassignment surgery at 19, and has a driver’s license, birth certificate, and passport that all identify her as a woman.

“For more than two weeks, the Miss Universe Organization and Mr. Trump made it clear to GLAAD that they were open to making a policy change to include women who are transgender,” said GLAAD spokesperson Herndon Graddick in a press release. “We appreciate that he and his team responded swiftly and appropriately. The Miss Universe Organization today follows institutions that have taken a stand against discrimination of transgender women including the Olympics, NCAA, the Girl Scouts of America and The CW’s America’s Next Top Model.”

Having been featured on ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, and The View, the controversy and Talackova’s life story have now directed more attention to the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights. Discussing the bullying and discrimination she endured from childhood, as well as the pain she felt following her sexual reassignment surgery, Talackova has become a new impromptu character for humanizing a sometimes misunderstood minority.

Talackova told ABC News, “I feel like the universe, the creator just put me in this position as an advocate. 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.”

The two-and-a-half-year long relationship she’s shared with her boyfriend and her aspirations to be a mother of two underline her goals are similar to many other women.

Pageant officials remain in talks with GLAAD over the language of an official policy change that would allow transgendered women to participate in the competition henceforth.

“We want to give credit where credit is due, and the decision to include transgender women in our beauty competitions is a result of our ongoing discussions with GLAAD,” said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization in a statement. “We have a long history of supporting equality for all women, and this was something we took very seriously.”

However, some critics feel the media attention surrounding Jenna Talackova is not really remarkable, or necessarily positive. Because the gender institutions surrounding pageants are so traditional, some people feel allowing transgendered women to compete is just propagating society’s aesthetic expectations on an expanded female population.

“Go ahead, call me a feminist,” says Suzi Parker in an editorial for The Washington Post, “The real victory would be if no women desired pageant queen status. Now, transgender women will have to be like the rest of us – living up to a beauty ideal decided by a panel of judges.”

Despite such criticism, on the other side of the ocean, 18-year-old Jackie Green, formerly Jack, secured her place in the semi-finals Miss England 2012 competition just this week,. Green, who won the public vote to successfully move forward in the competition, became the youngest person to ever undergo sexual reassignment surgery at 16.

Talackova, along with Green, has become an inspiration for transgendered people who might not have let themselves even dream of participating in a pageant before. For example, Dayana Saucedo, a Bolivian transgendered woman, intends to try to compete for next year’s Miss Universe crown because of Talackova’s success.

In an editorial piece for The Huffington Post, Laverne Cox, an actress and transgender advocate says, “Initially when I heard about [Talackova being ousted from the competition], I was like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s been the rule for a really long time. That’s just the way it is, and it’s just a beauty pageant. Who cares?’ What makes me sad about my initial response is that it demonstrates how used to my second-class citizenship I have become, that I, this supposedly empowered person, was willing to say, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ Further in the piece she contends that “We need no longer hide for fear of the discrimination Jenna experienced. We can say no more. We can say being transgender is beautiful, and we have the right to dream.”