pageants and beauty/gender certification

As I write this, I’ve just gotten myself set up for watching the Miss America pageant, which, I confess, is one of my television highlights of the year. I know that probably sounds weird, and yes, I know lots of reasons why pageants can be and are problematic (fat phobia, racism, and certain types of ableism being obvious and legitimate complaints about Miss America; misogyny in the existence of these things at all also being a more generalized discussion that pageants legitimately provoke), but I was a pageant competitor as a teen, and I find them interesting. I also find them complicated. And this year, Miss America looks like its going to be an intersection between the two for me because of Miss New York‘s platform and because of why I did pageants.

Pageants are, at their heart, a weird sort of public job interview, the job in question being model, spokesmodel or spokesperson for the pageant’s sponsors and agenda issues. Pageants are also agents of extreme normativity (and heteronormativity), to a point that the ideal of femininity idealized and desired by them can seem caricaturish and bizarre (this is less true of a pageant like Miss America than of many smaller and regional pageants that have developed their own standards and looks. If you want to get a sense of this, do some Googling or take a look at a magazine called Pageantry.

My own participating in pageants (I was in the Miss New York State National Teen-Ager Pageant 1987, in addition to some other stuff) sprung from a number of sources, none of which were parental or peer pressure. Rather my parents and peers thought it was weird and inappropriate, not because of the issues I’ve previously identified, but because it wasn’t done — not as a New Yorker and not as someone raised in the class I sort of kind of was.

And I’ll be frank, a great deal of my participation in pageants was about my own insecurities. Some of those were the typical insecurities of a teen girl: I didn’t feel pretty, and I entered pageants in hopes of winning so I could tell my peers they couldn’t tease me for being ugly, because look, there was proof, I wasn’t anything of the sort. But my participating in pageants was also, inextricably, linked to my own sense of non-normativity both as a queer person and a New Yorker.

I grew up in New York City, with parents who are artists, but I would come home from school every day and watch The Brady Bunch and wonder what it was like to be an American — to go to school with boys, to worry about learning how to drive, to care about football, and homecoming. Pageants innately fascinated me because they seemed an element of and gateway to the country I was supposed to be a part of, but everyone always told me I wasn’t.

I also grew up knowing I wasn’t like other people. Strangers would tell my parents what a well-behaved little boy they had, and I was always cast in all the male leads in the school plays (which was sort of awesome; how many girl-born folks do you know who can say they played Ko-ko in The Mikado and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before they were twelve?). Harassment I received at school about my appearance (I was thin to the point of illness (undiagnosed celiac disease), gangly, and sort of awkward) was based around gender and sexuality. Why call me an ugly girl, when it was just easier to say I wasn’t a girl at all?

This stuff bothered me for a few reasons. The first was simply that mean people sucked. The second was that I thought my parents would be angry; they asked me often enough what I had done to make people be so mean to me. The third was that the remarks both felt remarkably true and not. I wanted to be gorgeous in an evening gown and an hourglass figure. But I also wanted to be Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica back when he was a boy (yeah, I like me some bad TV, ok?). I was a boy. I was also a girl. And I was really scared I was ugly either way. Mostly though, I didn’t want people to be mad at me or make it hard for my parents or friends to be around me, because I wasn’t right.

Pageants were a way not just to have my beauty certified, but my femininity. It was a way to hide what I was, and a way to make up for it. And I hoped that being around girls performing girl-ness meant that someone would teach me how to be pretty and sit the right way and say the right things and smile at the right time and be less weird and New York-y.

That didn’t work out for me, not really. I was not a great pageant competitor (although I do have a few sashes and crowns), although I can still do a three-diamond turn. But pageants were the first time I ate McDonald’s and went to Chuck E. Cheese. They were the first job interviews I ever did. And the first time I had to learn how to be photographed or make decisions based, not on who I was, but who I wanted other people to think I was. In other words, pageants gave me some professional skills, taught me how to pitch myself, and also taught me that hiding who and what I was would be hard. It wasn’t in my makeup.

Did I come home from Miss New York National Teen-ager 1987 and come out? No. Officially speaking that didn’t happen until my freshman year of college, after I read Valerie’s Story in V for Vendetta. But pageants let me know, through my failure at them, that I was going to have to. In college, I toyed with trying to do Miss America local pageants and coming out once I won one — would they kick me out for moral turpitude for being queer? They might have, back in 1990 or 1991, but I don’t know.

All of this, however, is why pageants interest me. They are a world both known to me and forbidden to me. They are performative, heteronormative and yet, also, weirdly queer, because who knows what everyone else up there is trying to hide.

This year, the Miss America pageant actually brings my own pageant story full circle in some way: Miss New York’s platform is LGBT equality, because her sister is a lesbian. Miss New York just reached the semi-finals. One day, maybe we’ll have an openly queer Miss America, although with the dwindling viewership of the pageant on television, I don’t necessarily know if it will last long enough to happen.

Right now though, I’m a little bit teary for how scared I was at 13; how angry I was at 19; and how strange the world seems now. Because it’s not just that Miss New York’s platform is that I’m human, it’s that the pageant keeps playing that Pink’s Raise Your Glass. Is it really possible that they actually know that song is about people like me?

11 thoughts on “pageants and beauty/gender certification”

  1. The music people at Nassau Coliseum have started playing Raise Your Glass at Islanders games. It is a safe bet they (and most fans) are unaware of the implications, but as a queer fan I enjoy it nonetheless.

  2. Even if they don’t know who the song is about, the audience will.

    And for most of America, I don’t see how they couldn’t know. I’m pretty normative and average across the board (and a bit dense to boot), and I recognized the “about” of the song right off.

  3. Great post.

    I never entered in any beauty pageants, but I did attempt, a number of times, to engage in activities that would require me to perform femininity in a very traditional way — I don’t think I ever managed to do it without making a fool of myself. I was also often cast as a boy in school plays.

    I don’t think I worked out how to perform femininity in a way that made me comfortable until I was in my 20s, and even now I think it’s a version of femininity that marks me as–well, I can’t use the word queer, because that’s not my word to use–but marks me as different, I suppose.

  4. Whoa! That song!
    I had no idea that song existed and I like P!nk. Now I have to make sure I follow her like Lady Gaga ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great perspective, thank you, beauty pageants are a bit foreign to me as a rule.

  5. “to have my beauty certified, but my femininity. …would teach me how to be pretty and sit the right way and say the right things and smile at the right time and be less weird”

    I find it really intriguing that even though we may have come at pageants from a totally different perspectives (I was obviously always a girl / looking a girl / acting a girl / never questioning gender identity) I participated in pageants for exactly the same reason. I didn’t feel normal, I wanted to be normal, but most of all, I wanted as you state “to have my beauty certified”. To prove to others you shouldn’t pick on me, you have to accept me, you should like me, you should be my friend.

    Of course it didn’t work out that way, but I thought it would at the time. I agree pageants taught me how to package myself, sell myself, be able to speak in public, how to be cordial to people I really couldn’t stand. It took me years to realize that my packaging was different, that I wanted to be artistic and quirky and goofy as well as being intelligent and accomplished in my interests – that my packaging wasn’t going to be the cookie cutter of the professional pageant industry.

    Pageants aren’t all bad, pageants like everything else can be addictive, destructive and/or dangerous if not approached and handled in a safe manner. I agree it would be an accomplishment to have a GLBT Miss America, or to have a major pageant that weights science and math accomplishments above beauty. Maybe in the future we will see pageants broaden their horizons, just like the experience of pageants has broadened ours.

    Miss Lake Norman, First Runner Up 1987 (?)
    Miss BHS 1988

  6. This is fascinating. Would love to hear more about your insights into mainstream pageantry versus drag queen pageantry, and the relationship between the hyperfeminization of both.

    1. I think there’s probably some interesting regionalism stuff here too. When I think about the beauty ideals in pageants in the South vs. Texas vs. the Midwest vs. California vs. the Northeast, there are all subtle differences in looks that are gone for, and I think some of those get closer to drag pageantry than others. I also think it’s interesting that if you look at kid pageants and how constructed those looks are and how much farther they are from any mainstream conception of beauty for adult women or children that those are actually the most similar in non-queer pageantry to drag pageantry.

  7. For some reason, your comment on the three diamond turn made me think of the one woman I remember seeing do a100% perfect “Southern Belle” hug. She did it so beautifully! (I’m sure all Southern Belle pageant girls would have drooled at her hug.) She was a MTF trans.

    So of course that appeals to my sense of irony.

  8. Argh, should added that I love seeing your view points and hearing your experiences on pageants. I don’t think I ever had the urge to try entering a pageant. I’m not sure how I totally missed that they existed when I was little.

    I had Czechs (and other) classmates, whose parents or grandparents were foreign born, who came to school on certain days dressed up in beautiful embroidered dresses and such. (One boy’s parents came from Nigeria.) It made me wish our family wasn’t boring middle class Americana, just so I could have some thing exotic to wear to school on certain days.

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