Beauty pageants have dominated the news this past week. The French Senate banned them for girls under 16, threatening a two-year prison sentence and stiff fines of thirty thousand Euros for organizers–or parents–who enter their children into illegally organized contests. The French bill referenced the spate of advertising already occurring in France with hypersexualized images of prepubescent girls showing up in advertising and the potential negative mental health effects to girls of sexualizing them at a young age by requiring them to wear heavy makeup and provocative attire.
In the same week many in the U.S. were surprised to learn that we still hold the Miss America contest and that it was won by an American of Indian heritage. Derogatory comments on Twitter erupted about why an Arab and Muslim had won the American contest despite the fact the new Indian descent Miss America was neither Arab nor Muslim and we already had an Arab Miss America two years ago (Rima Fakih). It seems some forget the beauty of the American dream– in myth at least–is its ability to assimilate and offer opportunity to all. Even our beauty contests allow American contestants of any ethnicity or religion to potentially win–despite prejudices held by these few on Twitter.
Next, a Marina High School in Huntington, CA elected sixteen-year-old Cassidy Campbell, a male to female transgender who is still in the process of transition, to be its homecoming queen.
It turns out that Campbell is not the first transgender girl to win the homecoming queen title. Jessee Vasold, a male to female transgender became homecoming queen in 2009 at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA and a nineteen-year-old named Devon, also a male to female transgender student still undergoing transition was voted her school’s Junior Homecoming Princess. In the last case Devon was elected to the queen’s role without letting on about her status and prior to having sex reassignment surgery.
So what does all this news amount to? Are women of any background now able to break the sexist stereotypes of beauty pageants these days? Or, are the stereotypes still breaking the women and girls they crown? Is crowning any girl—a still transitioning or fully transitioned transgender woman, an Arab, a Muslim, or none of these categories—to become a high school or college homecoming queen, or beauty pageant winner a good thing? Is it healthy for any group of females to be submitting themselves to the organized judgment of others—to determine who is most worthy according to external standards?
The French are perhaps the first to officially recognize that it is not healthy for young girls organized by adults–to try to fit stereotyped gender roles and compete in popularity contest in large or whole part based on sexualized ideals of beauty that have nothing to do with innocence or childhood–and that these pageants are detrimental to the psychological health of all young girls.
Transgender individuals now entering into homecoming contests may perhaps begin to cause some of us to ask ourselves what is both gender and beauty anyway–and how much of it is culturally defined versus intrinsically known? And why would we want any developing young person under the age of eighteen–male or female, transgender or not, to submit themselves to the scrutiny of others to decide if they measure up? For a country that got rid of royalty on its road to independence it seems Americans could also now grasp the wisdom of doing away with the hierarchal idea of beauty queens. Can’t we recognize and bring out the beauty in everyone and celebrate real beauty without any king or queen being crowned among us?