I am not sure if that is what Jenna Talackova thought when she was growing up as a boy names Walter in Vancouver, Canada, but that is what she has been fighting for a chance to be – Miss Universe in the 2012 contest to be held in Canada. The Miss Universe pageant, which was started in the 1950’s, in my mind has always symbolised and embodied women being women as they were schooled and told to be post-war in the late 1040’s and 1950’s. It’s about women flaunting the fact that they are women. It has always been about skinny, beautiful, Barbie-doll-like, perfect (according to modern, Western interpretations of perfect) representations of the female form. It has always been about pink and fluff and poofy hair and make-up and swimsuits and women prancing around a stage under high-tech lights, modelling and posing and occasionally answering questions in slightly breathy (and high-pitched) voices, looking slightly dazed and confused from having to suck their stomachs in during the gown parade. Beauty pageants have facilitated the male gaze, the objectification of women and the glorification of female beauty in kind of grotesque stereotypes. The worst are the child beauty pageants, where 5-year old children have fake tans, fake hair extensions arranged in fake curls with fake tiaras daintily placed on top. But as I child I have to confess, I loved watching beauty queens on TV. I watched all the beauty pageants and like millions of other little girls, I loved them. I could recite Miss Louisiana’s victory speech at one sorry point in my life. I even wanted to be a beauty queen one day; and, embarrassingly I have to admit that I played with Barbie.
So there is an interesting dichotomy in beauty pageants. One one level they profess to be about gender right and equality, but one another they are the worst form of objectifying women, which must sub-consciously lead to the setting up of ‘other’ between the genders.
What is really interesting to me therefore is Jenna’s story, because the transgender community have always thrown in to question the whole notion of gender and gender difference; and so where best to explore that kind of controversy than at a Miss Universe pageant.
Looking at her photograph and watching her on YouTube, it is hard to believe Jenna was born a boy. She is indeed very beautiful. Her voice sounds female. Her movements are graceful, she is tiny (skinny), despite being tall and she has long, seemingly real, golden locks. In fact, ironically to some extent she looks more real (and less plastic surgery assisted) than many of her competitors in the pageant. Initially the Miss Universe pageant disqualified Jenna from competing for the Miss Universe Crown on the grounds that the ‘rules’ of the company stipulated that only ‘naturally born’ women could participate. However, Jenna, along with her lawyer, have overruled that, on the grounds that it is a discriminatory rule and she is going ahead with her quest.
I know that Jenna looks, acts, feels and wants to be seen as a women. But the fact is she had to undergo major hormonal treatment and invasive surgery to be a woman. So symbolically she represents some really interesting questions around gender, the role of women (and men) in the new world, the objectification of women in beauty pageants and the male gaze. I think as a spokesperson for the trans community (whether she set out to be that or not) she is probably doing good work. I know the transgendered community are still horribly side-lined and marginalized; and especially for transgendered women, they are the victims of physical and even sexual violence all too often.
She has chosen an interesting path, to want to be crowned Miss Universe. I will be interested to see where her beauty queen journey ends up. I shall watch her space.