One of this week’s viral news stories involves two young women whose names most people surely do not know. Mariana Varela and Fabiola Valentin, who in a 2020 beauty pageant earned the titles of Miss Argentina and Miss Puerto Rico, respectively, announced in a joint Instagram post that they got married last Friday.
The wedding announcement made it into several major news outlets in the U.S. and around the world. “After making it to the pageant top 10, the two beauty queens appeared to remain close friends on social media,” CNN reported on Thursday. “What fans didn’t know is they were secretly dating the whole time.”
Without exception, writers spun it as a feel-good story—and, of course it is. Weddings are happy occasions. Love is lovely. Two women finding queer sex and romance in a place where gender nonconformity goes to die is an indisputable triumph.
But as it spread, the story also started to make me feel a little insane. No one seemed to want to acknowledge the unseemly impulses behind our gawping fascination. Forgive me, for it is about to get a little less feel-good in here.
Beauty pageants are businesses, and particularly vulgar ones at that. They have also never been as meaningless and irrelevant as they are now, when any hot person can become an Instagram influencer without setting foot on a casino stage. Yet dozens of media outlets are credulously leading with these women’s titles as if they hold political office or something, and as if we all know what “Miss Argentina” means. We don’t: To the extent that the titles “Miss Argentina” and “Miss Puerto Rico” mean something to you at all, you’re probably thinking of a Miss Universe competitor. To make matters even more stupid, the two women met at the Miss Grand International competition, not even one of the “Big Four” pageants.
So let’s lay it on the table. The only reason why the Varela-Valentin nuptials are of any interest to anyone is that it feels like a surprise, and it is only a surprise because of a homophobic instinct. We are lightly bemused when we discover that conventionally attractive, hyper-feminine women are queer, especially when they are conventionally attractive and hyper-feminine enough to win competitions based entirely on those two qualities. These women built their careers by molding themselves into the ideal female form as determined, largely, by male desire—and ended up desiring each other.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that two hot people in the same industry found they had a lot in common and fell in love. But because of our stereotypes about what queer women look like, it is.
We also don’t expect queer women to embrace the body fascism of the pageant circuit as eagerly as certain segments of gay male culture embrace gym addiction, youth worship, and performance-enhancing drugs. That presumption has a little more meat behind it, and it’s the far more interesting part of this viral news item, in my opinion. Lesbians have been at the forefront of movements for fat positivity and against the notion that a woman’s value can be measured by her aesthetic appeal. Now we choose to celebrate the story of two queer women who have, instead, tied their fortunes to an institution that enthusiastically reproduces that exact model of one-dimensional female worth.
Therein lies another facet of the viral titillation this story has inspired. Like the Bachelor contestants in Australia and Vietnam who allegedly fell in love with one another instead of the men at the center of the show, the Varela-Valentin story has traveled on the sense (unacknowledged, again, by journalists) that these two women were heretofore sexually available to men, as demonstrated by their participation in sexist beauty contests, and have now turned their back on that sexual market in a shocking and vaguely duplicitous way. (There has been some absurd social media chatter to this effect.) Several news outlets called their marriage a “twist.”
What is the twist, here? Is the twist that they were assumed to be straight, and are not? That they were competitors in a contest and are now … partners in life? That they were doing a great job of being closeted, and have now come out? The putatively joyful revelation that they were lovers all along, even as they pretended to be gal pals in their Instagram posts for two years, does not warm my heart. I find it terribly sad.
The prospect of beauty competitions becoming hotbeds of lesbian lovemaking—and the media looking on hungrily as a result, being forced to pretend that the love lives of competitors in a second-rate pageant franchise are somehow newsworthy—strikes me as the end of something. Is it the nail in the coffin of heterosexuality, whose next-to-last bastion of unapologetic reverence is finally going gay? Or should it mark a turn toward homo-pessimism, as queer women begin openly occupying ever more extreme positions in the infrastructure of gender conformity and institutionalized expressions of straight male desire? I’ll leave it to the judges of the swimsuit portion to decide.