Beauty Contests, Civil Rights, Transwomen, and Surgeries: All In One Story

Laurie and Debbie say:

Whatever you may think of beauty contests, they matter deeply to the people involved in them. They are also a useful way to look at what’s going on in the world, especially the world of conventionally beautiful young women and those who fetishize them.

Miss Universe Canada is a separate beauty contest from Miss Universe USA. This year, Jenna Talackova competed in the Miss Universe Canada contest, the first identified transwoman to do so. She finished in the top 12, and tied for Miss Congeniality (a role voted on by the contestants, not the judges).

Talackova threatened to go to court for the right to compete, but the Miss Universe organization, which is owned by Donald Trump, agreed to let her compete before the case went to court. She might not have won her case in the U.S., but she probably would have won in Canada, where the LGBT rights laws are the most progressive in the Americas.

Take a moment to celebrate Talackova’s multiple victories: she got into the pageant (which was her dream), she did well, the other contestants liked her, and she changed a part of the world–a part that is deeply important to her.

South of the Canadian border, Olivia Culpo (Miss Rhode Island) won the Miss USA pageant. In the interview before the winner was announced, she drew a Twitter question if she thought transgender women should be allowed to compete in these contests. Here’s her answer:

I do think that that would be fair. I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural-born women, but today where there are so many surgeries, and so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life—I do accept that because I believe it’s a free country.

As Melissa McEwen at Shakesville points out, this is an amazing answer. In two sentences, Culpo  manages to

  • acknowledge the barrier people have to cross to accept trans candidates,
  • remind her listeners that many, if not most, of the contestants on stage have had body-mod surgeries
  • draw the connection between “beauty” surgery and gender-change surgery
  • acknowledge that transwomen are changing “for a happier life,” and
  • throw in the “free country” language which is so rarely invoked for trans rights.

The hosts of the show, Andy Cohen and Giuliana Rancic, felt that Culpo “nailed” the answer, which says that she has significant support for her position.

The host of surgeries which are common currency for 21st century beauty contestants include everything from breast augmentations to nose jobs.  Surgeries like these can only be considered “change for a happier life” because of the intense and unrelenting pressure on women to modify ourselves for the beauty market. And, unlike gender change, cosmetic surgery often doesn’t actually bring happiness to the people who undergo it. In the context of Miss Universe, however, we can hardly expect contestants to be the ones to fight against arbitrary beauty standards.

So, if a large percentage of the contestants have surgery to be able to be in the running, what is the difference between a contestant who has had a vaginoplasty and one who has had a breast augmentation? Between a contestant with a straightened nose and one with a reduced Adam’s apple?

Of course, there has been backlash. A contestant resigned from the Miss USA pageant after she lost, claiming both disgust at the thought of transwomen competing and fraud in the results. There will always be backlash, and it will always be nasty.

Jenna Talackova opened a door; Olivia Culpo explained, in simple accessible terms, why that door should be open. We don’t have to be big supporters of beauty contests to appreciate what they’ve done.

2 thoughts on “Beauty Contests, Civil Rights, Transwomen, and Surgeries: All In One Story

  1. I think that this is an incredibly generous reading of Culpo’s statement. I happened to be watching the pageant (in horror/ fascination) and saw these interviews and I felt like Culpo was stumbling on the line “there are so many surgeries” and was not actually speaking to the fact that there are many contestants with “beauty”/ cosmetic surgery but was just repeating the line and/or referring only to gender reassignment surgeries here. Also, the question was phrased using the term “natural-born women” and then Culpo repeated this phrase – and while she likely had not had much experience with the subject/ phrase before, the entire notion of a “natural-born woman” of any gender is so entirely problematic that it really tainted the whole interview from my perspective. Yes, when it was over, I turned to my partner and said, for someone who seems to know very little on the subject, that was pretty decent, but to attribute such a deep level of understanding to this brief, off-the-cuff statement seems really too generous for me.

    1. Neither Laurie nor I saw the show, and it’s really good to hear from someone else who heard it (we got our first-hand response from Melissa McEwen at Shakesville, who also pointed out the “natural-born woman” language (which is, of course, disturbing and which we probably should have mentioned).

      From my point of view, it’s not so much that Culpo’s response was nuanced or complex, it’s that in simple language and without having thought about it much, she encapsulated the things that a careful thinker, or someone not under pressure, might have taken the time to elaborate. We live in a world where people who don’t know much about the subject so often spew bile, or respond with deep ignorance–sure, it would have been fabulous for her to critique the “natural-born woman” language and to really explain what she was saying (if that’s what she was saying) about surgeries. But there’s still something very special about hitting the high points with not just tolerance but open-mindedness, on national TV, in the middle of a really stressful situation. And I think that’s where our “incredibly generous reading” comes from.

      Does that help clarify?

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