Q&A: UnReal’s Meagan Tandy On Feminism, Discrimination and Beauty Pageants

Brains, beauty, and feminist convictions—Meagan Tandy seems to have it all.

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia

Tandy is an actress and model, and has appeared regularly on television shows such as Teen Wolf, Jane by Design and LeBron James’s Survivor’s Remorse; she also played Denzel Washington’s daughter in the 2010 thriller Unstoppable. She was recently cast as Chantal, an elegant yet grief-stricken Southern belle, on the Lifetime series “UnReal”—an edgy and thought-provoking new series that exposes the subversive and anti-feminist machinations of reality dating shows. Ms. got the chance to speak with Tandy about her career, being a woman in Hollywood, her past experiences in pageantry, and her recent efforts to improve the confidence and self-awareness of teenage girls through her “Girl Talk” workshop series.

Do you identify as a feminist, and would you say you had a feminist “a-ha moment?” How has your feminism has guided your career and life choices?

I do believe in the feminist movement as I support women and our fight for equal pay and treatment in the world. I’d have to say my “a-ha moment” would be when I started to realize how many people in the world are actually against feminism. There are so many people who say that feminism isn’t a good thing, and it made me wonder if I just didn’t understand feminism enough. So that inspired me to find out more and to become more of a feminist—it’s also what drove me to start my Girl Talk workshops to help young girls discover and understand feminism more.

Have you ever experienced gender-based discrimination in your professional career?

Yes, I have actually personally experienced gender-based discrimination. Sometimes in Hollywood shows will cast a male lead character first—only after the male is cast will they decide who the female counterpart will be. The man they cast determines race and age of the female companion. And this limits the option for who that actress can be. This isn’t always the case but it has happened to me before. There was one particular project I can remember that I was the absolute choice for, but they cast a younger male lead first and I was no longer considered for the role.

You won several beauty pageants a few years back, even competing in the Miss USA competition. How did being a feminist affect or influence your experience in pageant life? Did you find the experience empowering?

I actually find pageantry to be extremely empowering as a woman. Many people might not realize this but pageants really help you gain confidence in yourself. When you participate in a pageant, you get to represent yourself and all that you work for—that includes exercise, your profession, and just how you live your day-to-day life. Pageants give you a platform to showcase all of the things about yourself that you’ve worked so hard to achieve and to represent yourself as a woman.

I can understand why some people look down on pageants. I know that people get especially, leery when it comes to swimsuit competitions. It’s important to keep in mind that beauty pageants are really about fitness and not all about sex and parading women around. The Miss Universe Organization decided to remove the bikini swimsuit competition from the MISS TEEN USA Pageant and replaced it with an active wear competition instead—something I highly support. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I believe participating in pageants helped me grow as a woman.

I’d like to talk about your role as Chantal on Lifetime’s UnReal. UnReal is fascinating in that it exposes reality television and the damaging effects it can have on women. Would you consider UnReal a feminist production? If so, in what ways?

I do consider UnReal a feminist production. I actually think the most remarkable aspect of it’s just that it’s a show completely led by two women in positions of power. The main characters of the show recognize that the world is run by men making big decisions, and they talk about how unfair that is. Then there’s the fact that the show is very edgy—and it’s getting even more edgy in this season. It made me realize that I, personally, could never do reality television because it showed me how women are just used for ratings. On “Everlasting,” the reality show within UnReal, they try to get women to cry and act hysterical as if that validates us—but actually, we’re a lot more important than just tears.

I read that Season 3 of UnReal explores not only issues of gender but also of race. What was your reaction when you heard that the show would feature an African American male lead?

A: I thought it was awesome that the show was going to feature a black suitor—it’s something that has literally never been done before on popular reality dating shows. And it’s not just that they cast a black man to play the lead—they put the effort in to actually educate viewers and show them how that added racial aspect would play out on a reality show. Everyone has their preconceived notions and thoughts about what black men can and cannot do, what they can and cannot provide, but UnReal says “look—here is a black man that women can actually be interested in.” I think that’s great.

Tell me about your Girl Talk seminars. What inspired you to start this project?

A few years ago when I was Miss USA California, I volunteered for a program called “Who’s Your Hero?” which is a youth mentoring program created by an organization called Women on the Move Network (WOTMN)—an incredible feminist organization that I have now worked with for several years. They launched the “Who’s Your Hero?” program for girls ages nine to 11, and it was incredible. However, I noticed that after age 11 the girls were just sort of thrown into the world, and I started wondering what happens afterwards as they become teenagers. It took a few years, but in 2011 I sat down with the director of WOTMN and asked if they would sponsor a program called “Girl Talk,” which would aim to empower and educate girls ages 12-17 about issues like social media, body image, and self-confidence. We ended up launching the first Girl Talk in 2012 and we held our fifth conference on July 23. I’m so incredibly grateful for the Women on the Move Network—without them and their support the program definitely wouldn’t be where it is now.

What issues did you choose to focus on at this year’s seminar, and why?

The theme for this year’s seminar was self worth. One of the main topics I’m interested in is social media and how it can affect the confidence of women. It’s a topic that I like to make sure I, personally, speak to the girls about because social media is really taking over now, and I want to make sure the girls are educated about it and how toxic it can be. Everyone compares themselves to the celebrities they see on Instagram, you know? And it’s really hard to accept yourself when you do that. We also focused a lot on nutrition and health in the seminar, which I think is very important given the high rates of childhood obesity and diabetes in America’s youth. We discussed schoolwork and went over specific study and organizational tips to help the girls succeed in school—there’s just so much work being thrown at these young girls nowadays and it’s so important that they learn how to prioritize, focus on academics and get their studying in when they need to. We brought in actual teachers to show the girls how they can balance their schoolwork with all their extracurricular activities as well.

This year we also added in new speakers on skincare, makeup, and fashion. As for the makeup and fashion portions, we taught them very basic makeup techniques, but we didn’t want them to feel like they needed to wear a mask to feel validated. When it comes to fashion we want the girls to express their own unique style and personality but we also want them to present their best self. They have to understand that in some situations walking around in booty shorts will attract the wrong attention.

What has been the most rewarding moment or experience you’ve had as a result of your Girl Talk program?

I have had so many rewarding moments because of Girl Talk. The most rewarding is when the girls message me after the seminar ends to tell me how much it meant to them. One girl direct messaged me on Instagram telling me that because of what she learned in the seminar she was able to help her friend who was being bullied. When she saw her friend being treated poorly she went and got help and even taught other girls she knew how to handle those types of situations. That’s exactly what we want to teach the girls—not to be bystanders—not to just watch, to do something. I know my seminars aren’t going to save every victim of bullying but if I can just get to that one girl, she can impact a whole bunch of people around her; all it takes is one person to understand it, and from there it’s a ripple effect.

If you had one piece of advice to give to young girls in America struggling with feelings of disempowerment or insecurity, what would it be?

I know it sounds so generic… everyone always says to just be confident in yourself, but that’s actually very powerful. This world is so harsh—there are so many pressures we all face; we don’t feel beautiful, we don’t feel empowered, we don’t see ourselves represented on television and we start feeling defeated. If you can somehow figure out a way to get into yourself and really, truly love yourself, you can stop comparing yourself to others and be the best version of you. I want to teach these girls to understand what kind of superficial society we live in and know that they can love themselves even if they don’t see themselves represented on TV, or even if they’re not a size zero or two. Once you understand it, you can separate yourself from it and be comfortable with who you are.

You can check out Meagan’s twitter page here, and read more about the Women on the Move Network here.

 

 

About

Natalie Geismar is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, where she double majors in International and Area Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is an ardent feminist with a passion for human rights work and advocacy of all varieties and hopes to become some combination of international lawyer/activist/journalist/Amal Clooney in the future.