School's Out: Jenna Talackova, Pageant Culture, and "Expert" Discourse
The Toronto Star reported yesterday that a woman named Jenna Talackova, 23, was disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada contest last week "after it was discovered she was born male." The article goes on to emphasize the "authenticity" of Talackova's female gender identity, saying that she "knew by age 4 that she was a girl…began hormone therapy treatments at 14 and underwent sexual reassignment surgery when she was 19 years old." Aside from the somewhat sensationalist language of "discovery" and the way the phrasing of this reportage kind of re-centers the issue of birth sex as an underlying reality, the article seeks to offer critical, social justice-oriented opinions on this situation as an example of trans* discrimination.
There are a few bits of this reportage that I want to talk about. One concerns the use of experts by the opinion-makers of the journalism world, and another is about an observation about beauty pageant regulations I made while reading this article.
So, as to the first point, I was pleased to see that this particular article was written with a view to gender justice. (There are now many other articles about Talackova's disqualification, but I came across this one first because it arrived in my inbox with my daily EGALE news digest). But I noticed that there are no voices other than Talackova's identified by the reporter or self-identified as trans*. Why might this matter? Well, I think it's important at least to take note of because the use of scholars and other professionals (in this article, a lawyer) as experts about minoritized sexual and gender identities marks a longstanding pattern in the creation of knowledge about non-normative gender and sexuality. In other words, it's really important that people get to be active creators in the knowledge that's developed about them. That's not to say that the two "categories" to which I've gestured don't overlap. Obviously they do. Academia, law, and other fields are not only populated by cis-heterosexuals. And it's also not to say that the writer didn't take all of this into consideration. The writer may have wanted readers to hear from trans* people as experts in their own issues, but was unable to solicit the desired range of comments on the short timeline of news publishing. Perhaps some of the people quoted in this piece weren't cis, but also didn't feel the need to comment on their own gender identity. Maybe this was true of the writer, too. Regardless, it's good to pay attention to whose voices are allowed to speak about whom.
In case you're interested, I did find a great article by a transwoman on the Montreal Gazette website, that included the coolest argument I've seen so far (by a feminist law prof at my school, no less!). The writer of the Gazette article, Jillian Page, quotes Kathleen Lahey, who says: "the (beauty pageant) organizers can't hide behind the concept of a 'natural born' woman, because it does not exist in law…there is simply legislation and medical protocol that enables a person to align their legal sex classification with their body's physical appearance."
Which leads on to my second point. The Star article says:
Jenna's case – the case of challenging what has been decided is 'naturally female' – would prove a tough one for beauty pageants.
'They're about the spectacle of femininity. It's supposed to be, in a sense this exaggeration of femininity,' [Patrizia Gentile, a Carleton University Professor] said. 'Jenna's actually poking a major hole in that, drawing back the curtain where they don't want the curtain to be drawn.'"
This made me think about the history of this regulation and why it was created in the first place. To be clear, I'm with Lahey. Talackova is a woman, that's a fact that doesn't require the adjudication of others—she should be allowed to compete, and that's that. But I got to thinking in general about this rule that governs at least some beauty pageants and I wondered: Why the regulation about men not entering, if men are seen to be the opposite of all of these "feminine" qualities? If "men" and "women" are supposed to be so different from each other, then why be so concerned about a man's beauty upstaging a woman's beauty?
I might be missing the essence of the competition here. In what way would it be spoiled by the existence of gender differences underlying the mandatory performance of hyperfemininity? How would the other competitors be disadvantaged? As Page notes, sex and gender are spectra on which we are all differently located, no matter what pageant norms might indicate to the contrary. She also emphasizes so-called "natural born" females" in these competitions use surgical or other cosmetic interventions to enhance the gendered aspects of their bodies to match certain feminine ideals.
It's going to be interesting to see how these questions play out in the public conversations that are starting to swirl around this young beauty queen. It's a fascinating time to be having this discussion, in the context of increasing trans* youth visibility and as young people are mobilizing more and more, both in and outside of their school lives, to create new understandings about the gender and sexuality issues that matter to them.
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