THE PRINCESS & THE PAGEANT - A case of life imitating art
When I learned that Kataluna Enriquez was crowned Miss Nevada USA and would be the second openly transgender woman to compete in the Miss USA pageant, the first thing I thought of was my favorite episode of Xena: Warrior Princess that aired on January 20, 1997 called “Here She Comes . . . Miss Amphipolis.”
Enriquez, who was born on April 26, 1995, would have been too young to be inspired by that episode of Xena, but I suspect many LGBTQ people at the time were as enthralled by the show as I was. It was one of those rare moments when a transgendered person was honestly portrayed as a real human being – with well-placed humor. Bear with me as I share Suzy’s Synopsis of the episode:
Opening scene – Xena and Gabrielle are seen walking out of the ocean onto a pristine beach, their clothes are completely dry, and there is no boat or floating device in sight. They are greeted by Salmoneous, a well-known schemer who has organized a beauty pageant called “Miss Known World,” to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the peace agreement between area warlords. Salmoneous had discovered that someone is trying to sabotage the pageant for the purposes of ending the peace and resuming the war and has called for Xena’s help.
Xena initially objects stating the women are “underdressed, overdeveloped bimbos in a beauty contest.” (This is a self-deprecating jab at her character which fits that exact description.) Gabby chimes in with a more feminist perspective saying the pageant is another “feeble excuse meant to exploit and degrade women.” But when they learn about the fragile truce, they are convinced to uncover the plot with Xena posing as a contestant, “Miss Amphipolis” and Gabby as her “Marquessa.”
There are three major warlords who have entered their “girlfriends” as contestants and they are the prime suspects in Xena’s investigation. She gets to know the “girlfriends” and finds that each one has her own agenda for competing – one wants to get away from her warlord, one wants to feed her starving village, and the other is actually in love with her warlord but thinks he is “so hung up on the way I look that it’s hard for him to see past that to see the person underneath.” Beauty being more than skin deep is an underlying theme that Xena uncovers as she continues her hunt for the culprit. Ultimately, she has a change of heart about the pageant.
One other contestant turns out to be hiding even more. Miss Artiphys (a play on words – artifice or artificial) is transgender. When Xena uncovers the truth, Miss Artiphys begs Xena to keep her secret, saying, “This is a chance to use a part of me most people usually laugh at or worse. The part I usually have to hide. Only here that part works for me.” Xena agrees to keep her secret.
During the episode the writers exploit some stereotypes that an insider would find very funny, such as when Salmoneous is introducing the contestants he describes Miss Artiphys’ hobbies as: “archery, horse breeding, and knowing the score to every musical ever written.” Some might cringe at the obvious stereotypes, but the banter is not meant to be offensive; it feeds into the overall theme of the story.
After all is said and done, Xena uncovers the culprit and secures the peace, Miss Artiphys is crowned the winner of the “First Know World” pageant, and Gabby learns that Miss Artiphys was not who she appeared to be.
As Xena and Gabby walk victorious into the sunset, they conclude that “beauty is beauty” and “peace is peace.” Gabby, who is a well-known Bard, imagines the title of her next epic verse, “Queen for a Day,” at which Xena groans, then Gabby suggests, “What a Drag,” at which Xena just says, “Gabrielle,” in an exasperated tone. The jokes are not lost on the Xena audience.
Back in 1997, a group of my friends and I would get together on a weekly basis to watch Xena: Warrior Princess. One of them was a high school English teacher who taught an elective course called “Issues in Gender, Race and Class in Literature” for a dozen years from 1990-2002. She decided to use the “Miss Amphipolis” episode to inspire conversations about gender. They discussed issues around beauty pageants and transgender politics, concluding that individuals should be encouraged to be open and true to their selves and shouldn’t be afraid to express it.
My friend acknowledges that there were times in her class that the conversations were intense, fraught and sometimes awkward and on only one occasion did she receive blowback from a parent, but ultimately she was encouraged to continue teaching the class because the students benefited from being challenged to think critically and beyond their comfort zones. That is why my friend, who is now retired, is opposed to the so-called “divisive concepts law” that was just passed. She wonders whether she would be able to teach that course in light of that law. If she did, would she be the John Scopes of today and become the test court case that would challenge the constitutionality of that law. Eventually someone will be the test defendant of the 21st century version of the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Meanwhile, 24 years later, I applaud Kataluna Enriquez for openly and proudly competing in a pageant that until 2012 banned transgender contestants. Her journey has been challenging. She is a survivor of physical and sexual abuse and has struggled with mental health issues. She began therapy when she was ten, which helped her find herself, began her transition when she was 14, faced bullying by her classmates, and was not allowed to use either boys’ or girls’ restrooms. Once she started competing in cisgender pageants, she was subject to more discrimination. At one pageant she was forced to undergo an examination by a doctor to certify that she was a woman before she could compete.
For Enriquez pageantry is not only about beauty, it is also about “how you present yourself, what you advocate for, what you’ve done and the goals you have.” She is a proud Transwoman of color who advocates for inclusivity, diversity and representation. If it were not for her positive experience with mental health therapy and the evolution of broader-minded thinking about transgender issues, she would not be wearing the crown of Miss Nevada, USA.
Television shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and teachers like my friend paved the way for Enriquez’s achievement. This could be a classic case of life imitating art.