Friday, February 22, 2013

pageantry of the human rights race

Lately, I've been hearing (and involved in) conversations surrounding the presence of transwomen in contests such as the Miss America Beauty Pageant.  All of these experiences I have had with the topic came to a head when I found an article in the Huffington Post about Kylan Arianna Wenzel, the first transwoman to compete in such a competition since Donald Trump changed the rules after actions made by Jenna Talackova when she was disqualified from the pageant for "not being naturally born female".  Interested in this, I ventured to research more into the specific rules of the competition, both before it was changed and after.  According to a previous Huffington Post article, the new rule has not been officially put into words, but that the new policy was announced recently to allow transwomen the right to compete in the pageant.  Talackova, the transwoman who incited this change, was called into question because of the sex change she had undergone, and Wenzel even mentions having quit her job and started on the road to getting a sex change operation as well upon hearing of the policy change.

All of this talk of sex change operations gets me thinking: of course, the original rule of the contest was that only "naturally born women" could compete, and now it seems to have been amended to include transwomen who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery.  However, I hear nothing in any of these stories about transwomen who have not undergone surgery or do not plan to, and I wonder if this new policy would seek to include these women as well, or just those whose sex has been changed to match their gender.  I don't know what the new policy says word for word, but I would hazard to guess that transwomen who have not had sexual reassignment surgery would not be looked upon favorably by such an institution.  After all, pageant culture itself can often be damaging toward women, whether trans or cis.  It idealizes a certain form of beauty that is not attainable by most of the population, and errs toward a cissexist and heteronormative model.

The unfortunate truth is that, even if the rules do open up to encapsulate all of those who fall under the trans* umbrella, I believe that it will take time for those individuals to rise up and begin to win these competitions regularly.  For me, the thing that needs changing isn't just the rules of the game-- it's also the rules of society and its standard of beauty.  Think about all of the women who have won pageants like this.  A quick Google image search of the phrase "miss universe pageant winners" summons dozens of pictures of heavily made up women in glamorous costumes with miles long legs and perfect bodies.  This is one standard of beauty, and there are both cis women and transwomen who fit this description.  And still, I believe that it's time to move away from that model and explore the various types of beauty that exist.  In this day and age, it seems difficult for even cis women who fall out of this category to win pageants of this nature, and yet the nature of these contests is to celebrate beauty.

It is my belief, however, that beauty cannot be celebrated without complicating its current definition-- without exploring the beauty that can be found in women of all shapes, sizes, and beliefs; women of color; women from a lower class background; women who have transitioned surgically and women who have not.  Changing the law is the first step, and it is an important one.  Still, the law represents tolerance to me, and we must not be satisfied with just tolerance.  The only way to have these women that I have mentioned seen and celebrated, to have them truly participate in these contests and think "yes, I have a chance to win", is to slowly restructure society's idea of what a woman is and of what she can be.  This case of transwomen against the Miss Universe Pageant is not just a trans* issue, it is also a women's issue.  And until we can understand the misogyny that is at work here, we will never change and we will never grow.

So, congratulations to Miss Kylan Arianna Wenzel who is able to compete and change the face of pageant culture, and to Jenna Talackova who helped make that possible.  I am happy to celebrate this small victory for transwomen, but never without acknowledging the next steps and endless work required to create equalities and visibility for women everywhere.

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