Jenna Talackova has got to be one of the most inspiring pageant competitors ever. The 23-year-old Vancouverite was the first transgender woman to ever compete for the Miss Universe Canada crown this past May.
Controversy quickly ensued, as Jenna was initially barred from competing because she was not a “naturally born female.”
Jenna refused to quietly accept the transphobic ban. Instead, she hired celebrity lawyer, Gloria Allred, to challenge the discriminatory ruling. After weeks of media spotlight, dozens of online petitions and pressure from LGBTQ groups, head of the pageant, Donald Trump, overturned the initial ban and allowed Jenna to compete.
Jenna’s public crusade didn’t stop there, however. According to Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Jenna’s fight has caused a monumental change in the pageant world. The Miss Universe Organization has announced that as of 2013 the pageant will allow transgender women to compete.
Although Jenna didn’t make it to the final five in the competition, she was one of the top twelve contestants. She was also one of four contestants who were named Miss Congeniality and a definite crowd favourite.
I have to agree with Jenna’s lawyer who said, “She’s still a winner as far as I’m concerned. She won a ‘herstoric’ civil rights victory and I think that is frankly more important than anything, any victory she would win, even representing Miss Canada.”
I can see the arguments forming already: Yes, it’s good that Jenna was allowed to compete, but aren’t pageants as a whole sexist? Isn’t a competition that focuses entirely on grading women’s images and presentation misogynistic and archaic?
I agree that pageants as a whole need to be critiqued, but maybe in this context they can do some good.
Let me explain.
On the whole, transgender people do not receive much attention, or representation in the media. When trans people are represented, it is often in a negative, stereotypical light. Case in point: Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. In the movie, Buffalo Bill is represented as a would be trans person who tries to metamorphose into a woman by killing other women, skinning them and then making a “woman suit” that he can wear, out of their skin. Not exactly presenting unbiased, well-informed information on the trans-community.
I’m not saying that Silence of the Lambs is a terrible movie. I’m saying that we need a better representation of trans people in the media than, “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or it gets the hose again” (quote from the movie, in case you’re wondering).
That’s why I believe that, no matter how you feel about pageants, Jenna competing in Miss Universe Canada is a significant step forward. In this case, pageants have drawn media attention to the trans community and opened up the possibility for real conversations about how we treat trans people. For example, maybe this will bring attention to how Alberta, Canada is phasing out funding for sex-reassignment surgery. The provincial government will officially stop funding SRS by 2015. Perhaps, this will allow us to re-open a conversation over whether we as a province value our budget over our human rights.
Regardless, the fact that Jenna overcame many obstacles in order to run in this pageant demonstrates her strength and determination. She has paved the road for future transwomen who wish to compete in pageants and has won a victory for human rights. Jenna is truly a role model for women everywhere.