Miss Universe’s Progressive Move: Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Just Yet

Allowing transgender women to compete was positive and forward-thinking. But are pageants really becoming inclusive?

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The Miss Universe pageant said it would allow the transgender model Jenna Talackova to compete in its pageant as long as Canada recognizes her gender as a woman. Talackova was previously disqualified, she said, because she was born male.

In an enlightened move okayed by Donald Trump himself, transgender women will be able to compete in the Miss Universe competition beginning next year. The Miss Universe Organization, which is co-owned by Trump and NBC, announced on April 10 that it will be officially changing the house rules to allow transgender contestants to compete in their pageants, which include Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.

The move was a direct result of the temporary barring of contestant Jenna Talackova’s from the competition in March. Vancouver-based Talackova, who was born a man and had a sex-change operation four years ago, was initially blocked from entering the Miss Universe Canada contest because she was not a “naturally born female.” The move prompted an onslaught of criticism from activists and equal rights groups, GLAAD in particular, and propelled Talackova and the Miss Universe Organization into the international spotlight. Last week, after noting that Canada recognized her as a woman and had issued her a passport identifying her as such, Trump announced that Talackova was to be reinstated into the competition, fully able to compete for a spot in the international contest.

That news was only further shored up by the statement from the organization that it would be rewriting its policy to ensure that future transgender women who wanted to enter the contest wouldn’t encounter the same issues. “We want to give credit where credit is due, and the decision to include transgender women in our beauty competitions is a result of our ongoing discussions with GLAAD,” said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe organization. “We have a long history of supporting equality for all women, and this was something we took very seriously.”

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Sounds like great news all around, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, we might need to put this victory into perspective before praising the Miss Universe organization too much.

Beauty pageants been on the relevant fringes of society in quite some time. According to Nielsen, last year’s pageant drew the lowest ratings — with a dismal 5.336 million viewers — the show has seen since the 1970s. Opening the competition to transgender women was a wonderful move (though likely ratings-oriented, but we’ll take it), yet the competition could hardly be deemed fully inclusive because of it. After all, it’s still a contest that chooses its winner largely based on looks. It also favors youth and sexual availability, with rules that stipulate women must be under 27, unmarried and have never had children. The winner is also required to remain single for the entirety of her “reign.”

Just to repeat: it’s most definitely, 100% a great thing that transgender women have been included. While it’s great to delight on this historical win for transgender equality, it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that it’s taken place in an archaic time-warp of competition. As Susan Stryker of Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona pointed out to the Associated Press, “The next question is, can’t we move beyond beauty pageants and make changes in areas that have more relevance.” After all, she continued, it’s long been debatable “whether beauty pageants are the best way to advance the cause of girls, of women.”