A Feminist in a Beauty Pageant?
Attendants of the eyelash! I shall unloose one feather, like the peacock.
Aileen Wang recently wrote about her encounter with Helen Hua, who is not only a 2010 Smith graduate but is also “Miss Southcoast 2010” and was in the “Miss America” pageant.
Aileen asked the obvious question:
How could one simultaneously be a “feminist” and strut around in a swimsuit on stage for a panel of judges … to promote conformity and the idea of some male-constructed female “beauty” that’s rated in numbers and percentages?
Though skeptical, she found that Helen made some good points in defense of beauty pageants. In particular, Helen said that “a feminist is a woman who does what she wants” instead of conforming to some predefined role. We can all agree with that.
I have conflicting feelings about beauty pageants. Part of it is just the name, which suggests — wrongly — that they’re all just superficial contests of appearance. And most competitions decided by people voting depend partly on superficial factors. Even the Nobel Prize isn’t exempt: President Obama won the Peace Prize mainly because he got elected president and his name isn’t Bush. So beauty pageants aren’t that different from a lot of other competitions.
But of course, everyone focuses on the swimsuit part. And yes, that part is superficial. As far as I know, the Nobel Committee didn’t ask President Obama to model a speedo.
Helen points out, though, that appearance is only part of beauty pageantry. Depending on the pageant, of course. The Miss America pageant is the largest donor in America of scholarship money for young women, and it requires a lot more than just looking good in a swimsuit. It takes talent, and brains, and determination: qualities that we all need to get through life.
Of course, both Miss America participants and the women who write about them tend to be high achievers. Helen is taking a a job with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, while Aileen will probably end up working for Vogue magazine (and I totally envy her for it).
I’ve always been a believer in lists, so here are my lists of good things and bad things about beauty pageants:
- Beauty is good in itself. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. The fact that some people watch beauty pageants for lower reasons doesn’t change the fact.
- Pageants give opportunities to young women. That applies to participants and to recipients of scholarships funded by the pageants.
- Pageants usually showcase the fact that we can do a lot more than “strut around in swimsuits.” Good pageants showcase the talents, learning, and personal qualities of the participants.
- There is that swimsuit competition. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s main value is her appearance in conventional, male-defined standards of beauty.
- And the pageant itself is a competition, meaning that it can be superficial and sometimes brings out the worst in people. We are made for cooperation, not competition.
- It reinforces the idea that we always have to be pleasing other people. It’s the idea that we should say, do, and look like what’s popular instead of what we really believe in. Not every pageant participant falls victim to this: Helen obviously didn’t. But the danger is there.
I don’t know. Maybe I worry too much. Or maybe I shouldn’t stay up so late on Friday nights. 🙂
Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.