Making history

Upon finding out that Kataluna Enriquez had made history by winning Miss Nevada, and will go on to be the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss USA pageant, I couldn’t help but feel the irony. To me, beauty pageants have always represented a forceful focus on traditional female beauty. They have focused on a constricting heteronormativity that was far from any wisp of queerness. Upon a quick google image search, I was rewarded with exactly the images that I was expecting. The women are beautiful, with long perfect hair, skinny bodies, and white teeth. White sashes draped across their chests. Some wore crowns, others were crying, some threw an arm out in a wave to, I imagine, an adoring and large crowd. 

In addition to the irony, I felt proud. I was happy for Enriquez and the hard work that had led her to win. Enriquez says she is “a proud Transwoman of color”, and has “always wanted to compete on the Miss USA stage”. She goes on to say, “when I was young, I always wanted to see someone on the Miss USA stage — someone like me. And it just happened to be that I was the person that I needed to make history”. She fought through many adversities and the transphobia she experienced while working her way to success in the pageant system. But now, Enriquez has achieved her goal. She will be able to compete in the Miss USA pageant, where she will be the role model she aspired to be for other transgender women with the same dream. 

Kataluna Enriquez. On the left she is posing in her winning sash, and on the right she is shown wearing a dress she designed through her clothing brand KatalunaKouture. She posted the photo on Instagram wishing everyone a “Happy Pride.” Images: Enriquez’s instagram.

Rachel Slawson

Rachel Slawson, a bisexual and the winner of Miss Utah, also made pageant history.  In 2020 Slawson was the first openly queer woman to compete in Miss USA. She said that “there’s a reason why no one has ever come out during a pageant before”. She went on to say that “[p]ageantry is historically conservative, and LGBTQ+ people are often found helping backstage, afraid to step out and be seen for who they are.” 

Slawson speaks of the empowerment that Miss USA gave her. She used the pageants as a way for her to have her own space, away from a turbulent home life. They were also a way for her to embrace her drive towards “glamour”. Slawson, who was raised Mormon saw the pageants as a “place where [she was] actually celebrated for being in a swimsuit,” which she found “empowering” rather than “degrading.” Slawson sighted similar motivations as Enriquez, she wanted to be a role model and to offer the representation for other queer women that she wasn’t afforded.

Rachel Slawson. Image: Miss USA Twitter

Where does queerness fit?

Aside from their success, while reading about Miss USA, I still couldn’t feel totally at ease. There is great achievement in the fact that a transgender and a bisexual woman were able to succeed at what they aspired regardless of their queer identity. I also felt faced with the question, what does it mean for queerness to exist in the pageant system? 

I wondered how far Miss USA actually was from my minimal understanding of it. Someone had told me about the time Steve Harvey pronounced the wrong woman the winner. And I’d seen Little Miss Sunshine, a movie where a family goes on a road trip to get their daughter, Olive, to a beauty pageant in California. Aside from that, the only thing that came to mind was the crowns, the dresses, and a form of beautiful “perfection” that I have always found terrifying.

The competition

The actual competition takes place in 3 rounds: interview, swimsuit, and evening gown. In the interview, according to the Miss New York USA website, the women are judged on “poise, charm, [and] self – confidence”. They are also judged on their “communication skills and personality”. The site specifies that contestants “are NOT judged on their opinions or personal beliefs.”

I find it puzzling that judges make calls on contestants’ personalities entirely excluding their opinions and beliefs. Instead, it seems like they would only be hearing a surface-level, cultivated charm, that does not get to each woman’s unique life and worldview.

The other two sections, the swimsuit and evening gown, are both focused on “beauty”. In swimsuit, the site specifies further, that the judgment is based on the beauty of the “face, figure, [and] physical fitness” as well as “presence” and “confidence.” The gown competition is vaguer, judging based on “the beauty” each woman “brings to the gown of her choice.”

From an immediate look at the Miss USA website, the organization has put out a message of empowerment. The site reads, “MUO empowers women to realize their ambition and build self-confidence, acting as a catalyst for future success. The MUO community is a sisterhood that is committed to uplifting and empowering one another.” 

The message is good and is somewhat convincing until you remember that at its core it’s a competition. But a competition of what? The most empowered?

Empowerment or competition?

I couldn’t help but feel like the root of the organization was having women prove their worth. Or, compete to have their worth recognized. Which, in turn, quantifies their worth and makes one more worthy than many others. The base of all competitions is pitting some form of worth against another. But usually, competitions are putting skill against skill, not the person against person. 

Past Miss Universe winner from the USA. Image: Getty images

The success of queer women within the pageant industry is one that comes with complications. It seems that two things can exist at once; the achievement of two queer women, and the continued fitting within a system known to uphold traditional female beauty standards that cater to the male gaze.

However, queer women who choose to express themselves within the traditional understanding of female beauty are not betraying their queerness by any means. The power of Enriquez and Slawson finding passion and drive within the pageant system is an example of the infinite ways for women to express and feel empowered in their femaleness.

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