Jenna Talackova and the Miss Universe Pageant: Who Wins and Who Loses?

On the eve of the Canadian leg of of the Miss Universe Pageant, all the media attention remains fixed on Jenna Talackova, the transgendered contestant that took on Donald Trump’s glittering showcase of feminine allure and won. Well sort of. The problem is that Jenna has been forced to dance along a rather narrow and extremely slippery runway. On the one-hand her presence and the knowledge that she is transgendered has brought the world’s attention bowing at her pretty feet. On the other, she is not viewed simply as a woman but rather as a transgendered woman.

While all the attention is undoubtedly welcomed from a career perspective and as an opportunity to promote transgender awareness, the negative impact for Jenna on a very personal level is the very real challenge to her identity as a woman, albeit as an extremely attractive woman.

For most male to female transsexuals the ultimate goal is to simply disappear and take our place amongst our cisgendered sisters, shoulder-to-shoulder as it were, completely indistinguishable from any other woman. It’s a difficult challenge for most anyone born with an XY chromosome combination and made even more difficult for those socialized in the gender role normally associated with that particular pattern.

Jenna is one of the fortunate few for whom “stealth” living could have been a viable option. By stealth I mean the ability to live beneath the world’s scrutiny with regards to her surgical past. She “passes”; that is she looks and acts just as she appears to be, a beautiful woman indistinguishable from any other aspiring beauty queen. But, she was “outed” and so has had to run the gauntlet of media scrutiny suffering the transphobic barbs of Donald Trump, and the hateful ignorant put-downs of a largely misinformed public.

For many transgendered women stealth is not an option. It certainly isn’t for me. I do reasonably well in that regard but still, escaping the scrutiny of the public at large remains a decidedly unrealistic goal. So to some extent, Jenna is “wearing one for the team” taking the criticism in graceful stride while promoting transgender awareness and furthering tolerance in a world reluctant to be so.

Of course the big winner in all this brouhaha is Donald Trump, himself. The Miss Universe Pageant and others like it are viewed by many as antiquated spectacles out of touch with women’s rights and new millennium sensibilities. Ratings have been down in past years and Ms.Talackova’s arrival on the scene could not be more welcomed. She has been a media winfall for the pageant and even Trump with all his millions must be thinking: “You can’t pay for this kind of publicity”.

Jillian Page of the Montreal Gazette recently lamented:

We’ve talked about this before: the word “transgender” is not necessary. In fact, it is considered to be discriminatory by many people. But the media are having a field day with the Jenna Talackova story, and as several senior editors have told me, the “transgender” angle is the hook — they would not be reporting this story if Jenna had been a “natural-born woman,” whatever that means.

(source: http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/author/jillianpage21/)

Sadly, I am forced to agree with Jillian’s editors. One need only look at Alex Nino Gheciu’s National Post article emblazoned with the provocative and oh so delightfully salacious title: “Jenna Talackova: Buying Undies and Stealing the Spotlight” to understand all one needs to know about the media’s take on all this.

Gheciu’s article is a blow by blow account of a Miss Universe sponsored shopping spree in which Ms.Talackova’s transgendered presence is clearly seen as the glittering jewel in the crown of whatever media coverage the pageant has been able to generate:

4:15 p.m. The media swarm continues to follow Ms. Talackova through the mall, almost shoving other contestants out of the way in the process.

4:35 p.m. Majd Souti, 26, and Kuyan Elliot, 19, take their time shopping at Sephora, ordering around employees who scurry to find them just the right shades of blush. They’ve been left mostly left unnoticed by reporters, but harbour no hard feelings toward Ms. Talackova. “As long as the judging is fair and we’re all treated equally,” says Ms. Souti. “It’ll just make winning that much better and losing not too bitter because you’re losing to strong competition.” Adds Ms. Elliot: “I’m proud of her for having the strength to do this. She’s honestly, like, a really amazing person.”

(http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/15/jenna-talackova-toronto/)

Sadly, the actual judging will not be fair regardless of outcome. Simply put, the knowledge that Jenna underwent sex-change surgery is too big a hurdle for most people to overcome. Even with the most positive spin: “Wow! I can’t believe that absolute fox used to be a guy.” it remains a case of “she used to be”. Can the judges dispel all thoughts regarding Jenna’s past given the media exposure she’s received? Let’s face it even criminal trials have been ruled mistrials due to media exposure influencing a jury’s decision. Will the Miss Universe judges be able to overcome media influence in this case? I sincerely doubt it.

Will we ever see a time when the words trans-woman or transgendered woman fall into disuse? Honestly, I can only see that happening when medical science and social consciousness reach a level where transgendered women are “completely” indistinguishable from their cisgendered sisters—in every dimension: menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, menopause and all that attends those functions as well as in presentation and sociopsychological expression.

So who wins here?

Donald Trump is the obvious winner. His biggest hope has to be that Jenna wins the Canadian title so he can reap the benefits of her presence in the big show. Even if she takes the Canadian title and puts in an appearance for the Miss Universe Pageant it’s a one off and things will settle down once Jenna passes through (barring the unlikely event that she wins the whole thing).

For Jenna, herself, it’s book deals, fashion photo-spreads, and offers from certain men’s magazines. If she wins the title, critics will say she only won because she’s a transsexual. If she fails to place high enough it will be thought she faced unfair discrimination because of media exposure. The truth is, Jenna is not seen and will not be seen in the same light as her competitors.

And on that account, no one wins.

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