There was quite an interesting question asked towards Miss Venezuela during the Top Five round of tonight’s Miss Universe competition: “What would you say to someone who believes that pageants are archaic and against the feminist movement?” To which, she gracefully answered how pageants have “advanced” and that it isn’t just about women’s beauty, but also their “sensibility and heart.”
Then again, this opens up so many other questions for us to ponder on, but more importantly—the world has progressed, but are beauty pageants still living in the past?
An outdated competition
The MeToo Movement has achieved great strides in calling out abuses, sexual misconducts, and inequalities against women in entertainment, work, academe, among many other industries. Not only were abusers exposed, most of them lost their jobs and reputation, were put under investigation and convicted to pay for the crimes they have committed. This is quite an unprecedented feat for victims who have long stayed hidden and unable to voice out their rights. But are beauty pageants—a stage where women are objectified and pitted against each other—a step back in this progress?
Fifty years ago, women in the US staged a protest against the Miss America pageant and disrupted the show for a universal message it wants to tell the world: “All women are beautiful. A woman’s worth cannot be measured by a pageant.” The uprising highlighted the pageants’ antiquated views on “enslaving beauty standards,” and rejected the double standard that contestants were forced to be “both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” (Smithsonian)
These grievances still ring true today. One of the official requirements for eligibility of participants as stated in the official Miss Universe website is that “contestants may not be married or pregnant. They must not have ever been married, not had a marriage annulled nor given birth to, or parented a child. The titleholders are also required to remain unmarried throughout their reign.” The website also specifies that a candidate must be “at least 18 and under 28 years of age.”
This seems like a pursuit for the world’s most “eligible woman,” and that they have to maintain a certain “demure” or wholesome image in order to keep the crown. There have been instances when the crown was stripped off of winners for violating these rules post- pageant. Some of the most well known ex-pageant queens who were stripped of their titles include: Danielle Lloyd for posing for Playboy, and Rachel Christie (the first black woman to hold the title of Miss England), who was decrowned due to an alleged altercation with Miss Manchester (which CCTV then showed was nothing to do with Christie). (Independent.co.uk)
The Miss Universe organization further states a vague aspect on what they are looking for in a hopeful: “A contestant must be confident. She must be able to demonstrate authenticity and articulate her ambitions as a titleholder.”
But can’t a woman be confident if she is married? Or even more so, when she is a mom? Or what if she acknowledges her sexuality and is proud of it?
The main critique against pageants in general is quite simple: unrealistic standards. Women who decided to join pageants at a young age may develop problems in self-esteem, self-worth, and body image. These effects may also extend until post competition, where the “pressure to be perfect” can take its toll. A 2005 study revealed that past childhood contestants expressed higher rates of dissatisfaction with their bodies (Odyssey).
The pageant may emphasize much about a contestant’s personality, wit, and grace, but it cannot be denied that physical appearance bears a lot of weight when it comes to deciding who will take the crown. A swimsuit segment, is after all, part and parcel of the competition. Vaishnavi Pallapothu of Medium writes, “Women are told to line up and are then scored based on their looks, their smiles, their hair, makeup and clothing. In fact, the identity of a woman is reduced to a number — they lose their name and personality.”
Times are changing
But it is true what Miss Venezuela has said about how Miss Universe has also come a long way. This year, Miss Spain Angela Ponce, became the first transgender woman to ever compete in the pageant. Despite not coming home with the crown, her appearance in the pageant is a victory in and of itself.
Credit should also be given to the issues that the pageant brought to light in the Question and Answer portion. Some of which included the suffering of refugees, the freedom of the press, legalization of marijuana, and the MeToo Movement. Women are given the chance to be heard and an invaluable amount of exposure on a live broadcast where millions of viewers are watching.
Representation is another element that the pageants make up for in terms of its inadequacies. During that famous 1968 protest, African Americans were banned from joining the Miss America contest, and an explicit “white women only” rule was stated. That significant movement led by women paved the way for Miss Universe to become more inclusive.
Making women a representative of their country also gives its people someone to look up to and support. In other words, it’s not just one woman’s fight—a whole country stands behind her.
But as viewers, contestants, and supporters of Miss Universe, we should remain critical about these platforms. It should be stage to encourage, empower, and celebrate the participants, and not to oppress and degrade them into mere objects for entertainment.