Should we do away with beauty pageants?

miss-word-2012Our girl Courtney Martin says yes. In the Times’s Room for Debate, Courtney calls them outdated, and says they perpetuate the harmful idea that success in the real world depends on a woman’s ability to be a very particular kind of beautiful:

Let’s face it: the most beautiful women you’ve ever encountered would be total losers in a traditional pageant. That’s because authentic, messy, transcendent beauty can’t be scored. It isn’t tamed, plucked, planned, premeditated or rehearsed. And people like Donald Trump, who owns the Miss USA pageant, are clearly not the purveyors of it.

Real beauty is about resilience: girls and women who have been through something and come out the other side with an idiosyncratic scar or a hard-earned wrinkle, like the first lines of a powerful story. If there were a pageant where girls were asked, “When did you really get lost and how did you find your way back to yourself?” — well, then I might go in for that.

Others, unsurprisingly, disagree with Courtney’s assessment: the Times has included arguments from one researcher who argues that participating in pageants is a great moneymaking opportunity for contestants, and from a former Miss Virginia who used her platform to encourage girls to be feminists.

I’m with Courtney. I think that mainstream pageants like Miss America reward women and girls for cultivating the most fleeting and unsustainable of resources, physical beauty. And while there is clearly some skill involved in competing in pageants, I’d rather see girls and young women competing in and being rewarded for activities that aren’t 80% appearance, 20% skill (and I say this as someone who grew up competing in gymnastics and dance, in which skills certainly aren’t the whole, uh, ballgame).

My main objection to pageants is not just that they’re about rewarding a particular kind of beauty, but a particular kind of femininity, one that doesn’t take up a lot of space, that only speaks when spoken to, that smiles and smiles and smiles through hunger and in high heels.

Which is why, though I’d love to see beauty pageants fall by the wayside, I know that if that happens, it won’t eradicate the larger problem of how we think about what it means to be a “good” woman. I think of gendered oppression as a hydra, a many-headed monster; when you cut off one head, two more grow in its place. They’re two different heads, but they’re outgrowths of the same beast. If we cut off the beauty pageant head, it won’t change the fact that we live in a world where femininity is narrowly defined, where the rewards for performing it well are ephemeral, but the punishments for failing to perform are harsh. Even if beauty pageants disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow, we’d all still be moving through the world being judged on our appearance, our ability to smile through bullshit, and how good we look in a swimsuit. This is a Miss America world, and that won’t change overnight. And who knows what two other awful things will appear when pageants get cut off?

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t cheer the slow demise of the adult beauty pageant and scorn the recent, rising fixation on children’s pageants. But we should recognize that beauty pageants are only part of a much larger problem – and in fact, when it comes to ending gendered oppression, they’re fairly low-hanging fruit.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    “our ability to smile through bullshit”

    Or as Rebecca West famously put it, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

    I think your point that while the demise of beauty pageants is good, that they are more the symptom than the problem, is an important insight.

    I still think about the Caitlin Upton incident. I’ve always felt that she “did her job” in the sense that she cultivated the qualities that the larger culture told her mattered, and didn’t cultivate those qualities that the larger culture told her it didn’t really care about, and then when she stumbled through a question on a topic the larger culture had already told her nobody actually cared about, we laughed at her. I’m convinced that that moment had nothing to do with her, and was in fact a mirror back on the rest of us and our disingenuous values.

    I would be happier in a world without beauty pageants. But we don’t live in that world yet. And as long as they continue to exist I think it’s important not to villainize the women who participate in them. While we might be able to come up with more compelling ways for these women to expend their time and effort, they are, nonetheless, striving to achieve a participation with culture on the terms it hands them, and that, regardless of the fallacies that belie that culture, is beautiful.

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