Discrimination in Beauty Pageants

The trending topic in beauty pageants these days is the issue of allowing the participation of transgender women. Right now it applies specifically to the Miss Universe pageant and this discussion is one that actually started in 2001.

Elodie Gossuin
Elodie Gossuin

A rumour, started in France and which spread like wildfire at the 2001 Miss Universe contest in Puerto Rico, alleged that Miss France, Elodie Gossuin, was in fact a transgender woman. This turned out to be just that, a rumour, but it led the Miss Universe Organization to change its rules to indicate that only “naturally born women” were allowed to compete. For many years, little else was said about transgender women competing at Miss Universe or any of its national preliminaries.

The rules were changed again in 2012. Jenna Talackova, a transgender woman who had previously competed at the Miss International Queen Pageant, a transgender competition  in Thailand, was denied entry into the Miss Universe Canada competition. She filed suit against the Miss Universe Organization, alleging discrimination.

Jenna Talackova
Jenna Talackova

The Miss Universe Pageant announced that Talackova could compete as long as she met “the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions.”

The Organization denied the change was a result of the lawsuit and Paula Shugart, President of the Miss Universe Organization, indicated that “the decision to include transgender women in our beauty competitions is a result of our ongoing discussions with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and not Jenna’s legal representation”. Shugart stated further that the Miss Universe Organization has “a long history of supporting equality for all women, and this was something we took very seriously.”

Jenna Talackova made the semi-finals at Miss Universe Canada, but did not win the right to compete at Miss Universe. Since then, little else was said about transgender women competing at Miss Universe or any of its national pageants.

All of that changed in 2018. Hot on the tails of Ines Supa becoming the first transgender Playboy Playmate in December 2017, Talleen Abu-Hannah made headlines worldwide as the first transgender woman to compete for the title of Miss Israel.

Talleen Abu Hanna
Talleen Abu Hanna

The gorgeous Talleen was a huge favourite and was expected to become the first transgender woman to compete at Miss Universe. She made Top 4 but did not win the title of Miss Universe Israel.

Then came Angela Ponce, a successful and well-known Spanish model, who in 2015 competed for the title of Miss World Spain (at the concentration she was in fact the roommate of Mireia Lalaguna, who would go on to win the competition and later the Miss World crown).

Angela Ponce
Angela Ponce

Angela joined Miss Universe Spain 2018 and this time she did win the major price. We think that Angela made history as the first transgender woman to win the right to compete at Miss Universe (We say think because for all we know, transgender women may have already competed without anyone, or just a few, knowing).

Angela became and continues to be a trending topic worldwide and views on transgender women competing in beauty pageants conceived for cisgender women are very polarised. Various former Miss Universe and national titleholders have expressed their opposition to the opening of their pageants to transgender women (one has to wonder though, why they did not come forward when the rules were changed, or in the six years since, if their opposition is a matter of principle).

We have to ask though, what is the principle at hand? That depends on how you view beauty pageants. Are they a competition or a, rather elaborate, job application process?

As a competition, a beauty pageant is an inherently discriminatory activity because it is not open to everyone. Furthermore, it is a discriminatory activity that we have accepted for many decades. On top of that, groups that were excluded adapted by creating their own, exclusive competitions.

Opening up a competition to one of those excluded groups, does not make it less discriminatory, just more inclusive. The door is still open for another excluded group to challenge its right to participate. Unless you open that competition to everyone, it will always remain discriminatory.

The Miss Universe Pageant started because one Miss America refused to model Catalina swimwear. Catalina then decided to create another process through which to select a spokesmodel and hence Miss Universe was born. This makes the contest in fact a job application process. Like in every job application, rules were set by the organisation creating that job.

We know that all of us do not fill the requirements to apply for the job of CEO of a multinational corporation and we would not feel discriminated by this fact.

We also know that we do not all meet the conditions to apply for the job of Miss Universe. Are we justified in feeling discriminated by that fact?

What do you think? How do you see beauty pageants?

The real question is how do beauty pageants see themselves. Beauty pageants have become apologetic about their own nature when what  they should do is define what it is they really are and what it is they want to be and act accordingly. Otherwise, the issue of discrimination in beauty pageants will continue to be a mountain with no top.