Bitching on the beauty pageant circuit is hardly news, but in attempting to make it a little more political, Jenna Talackova has managed to gain some 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 never have 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.
The response has, unerringly, been in support of Jenna – it’s a violation of her rights as a woman, transgender and transsexual men 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 which the many millions of pounds could be spent fostering. Beauty pageants are social phenomena that reach 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 blog post 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.
I don’t think Jenna should have been disqualified – she deserves some reward for all that she’s put her body through and, if the Miss Universe Canada is what she’s after, then give it to her and good on her. I do, however, object to her automatic classification as female. 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. Just because she no longer has a penis, doesn’t, by default, make her female. The female gender isn’t a depository for anyone who didn’t want to be a boy. (I realise I’m using the female personal pronoun, but attempts to create one that is neither male nor female don’t seem to have got much beyond “herstory” and “womin”, which is a whole other issue.)
A few years ago, the short-lived Observer Woman magazine (there was never a Man magazine – seems the editors thought the sports section was it) ran an issue on “radical women”. Included in it was an interview with Candis Payne, the first transsexual to star in a primetime soap (Billy Baldwin’s love interest in Dirty Sexy Money). I complained to the editor, saying that, were the issue about radical men, I would applaud Candis’s inclusion as a man who had shown tremendous courage in his determination to change genders, but as a woman, she seemed to have done little more than land a role as a transsexual. The acting profession may be brutal, but surely that isn’t so significant an achievement as to be considered radical.
The roid-fest that is Mr Universe is running sometime later this year. I’d be curious to know the reception a female-to-male transsexual would receive if he attempted to enter. That said, the appearance of the contestants in the Miss Figure category already defies gender stereotypes so, maybe, there isn’t the same desire to flout them by hoping to pass as a man. My muscle bulk is concentrated in my gluteus maximus so there’s not much chance of me getting through the first round, but if she’s still in love with her new physique, Jodie Marsh might make it.