On CNN International at 4:30 EST today

Miss USA in a ridiculous American Flag costume

I’ll be debating the Miss Universe pageant, my thoughts on which were outlined here a few years ago. But if you have CNN International, tune in! And if you have thoughts pre-debate, leave them in the comments — would love to hear any information or arguments I may not have thought through. Here, basically, is my position:

The feminist arguments against beauty pageants are obvious, and have been around even before the famous 1968 demonstrations at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, which spawned that impossible-to-kill myth of feminist bra-burning. But in 2007, when women are attending college and grad school in record numbers, when the first female Speaker of the House is in power, and when women have unprecedented access to almost all professional fields, why are we still playing dress-up for money?

Despite achieving simple legal equality, women still lag behind when it comes to the higher-up positions in business, law, academia and politics. Our basic right to bodily autonomy is on the chopping block, as more anti-choice legislation and jurisprudence is introduced every year, sending the very strong message that our bodies are not just ours. Beauty is still one of the most valued characteristics a woman can have, and images of beautiful women bombard us every day. Is it any surprise that, in a culture which views women as objects to look at and vessels for reproduction, women will try to use the emphasis on their bodies to their own benefit?

Women are not stupid. We are rational actors who respond accordingly to our environments. From the time we’re little girls, we’re bombarded with images that reflect a very narrow standard of female beauty, and emphasize the idea that beauty (or at least the attempt to be beautiful) is a basic requirement of successful womanhood. If you happen to be blessed with the features that are culturally idealized (whiteness and thinness, among others), why not use it and make some money off of what so many other women do for free, and to feel good about yourself to boot?

Certainly plenty of women like dressing up, and like the ritual of putting on make-up and doing their hair and feeling pretty. Wanting to be perceived as attractive is no great sin, and isn’t strictly a woman’s concern. The difference, though, is that being attractive is considered much more important for women than it is for men, and women are required to spend much more time, effort and money on their physical appearance. While marketers are no doubt trying to breed male insecurity in order to push more product, women still dominate when it comes to the purchase of beauty-related goods. Women still spend millions on make-up, hair care, and lotions and potions claiming to do everything from eliminate wrinkles to get rid of cellulite to plump up breasts and lips. Women still make up most of the plastic surgeries performed each year. Women still account for the vast majority of people with eating disorders. Women are still the primary funders of the diet industry.

There is no shame in being one of the millions of American women who live in this culture and who structure their lives accordingly. I’m one of them. So are the women in the Miss USA pageant. Feminists have been leveling thorough and valid criticisms at beauty contests and consumer beauty culture for more than 40 years, and yet the contests persist. Women continue to participate in them, and we continue to watch them on TV. It’s no big mystery as to why: Beauty contest participants reap great financial benefits when they win, and American viewers are fully accustomed to evaluating and watching women for pleasure.

Ideally, beauty contests will eventually go the way of the dodo. The Miss USA pageant is not, by any stretch, good for feminism or good for women as a class. But it’s not happening in a vacuum. For 40 years, feminists have been arguing that pageants are a small part of a larger-scale system of oppression which positions women’s bodies as objects to serve others — to give them pleasure, to make them money, to sell their product, to birth their baby. While many Americans have duly noted beauty pageants to be silly and outdated, we often fail to recognize how they operate within a greater context of generalized and widely accepted misogyny.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Beauty, Feminism, Media & Media Literacy, Popular Culture, Vanity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to On CNN International at 4:30 EST today

  1. RBT says:

    My pre-debate thoughts are that this is hilarious:
    http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/62603630.html

  2. Jbs says:

    I’d think it’s unrealistic to expect beauty pageant to disappear entirely; just about everything can attract some small audience. But haven’t they essentially “gone the way of the dodo” as an important cultural force? Ratings for Miss Universe were the lowest ever this year.

    http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/09/13/tv-ratings-monday-bachelor-pad-finale-rises-leads-abc-win-but-miss-universe-hits-low-hells-kitchen-slips/103404/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Tvbythenumbers+%28TVbytheNumbers%29

  3. OldTrout says:

    Just a question: Why isn’t the beauty contest opened up to include all (women, men, trans, what-have-you). This could even potentially work economically, as we are seeing so many more folks buying beauty products. Very capitalist affirming, which is why, INMHO, beauty contests exist anyway. I’m not really for objectifying people, but I also believe that we each have our strengths, and if yours is beauty (this is largely cultural, of course) I would prefer a specific contest, rather than beauty being part of the competition in every profession, as it seems to stand now.

  4. Sid says:

    1) Does anyone watch this anymore?

    2) I’m convinced that most of the “international” contestants are American or European ex-pats.

    3) What is that tacky monstrosity?

  5. Dildo says:

    I still think Ms. Philippines won that.

  6. I remember reading about a pageant contestant who had participated at some time in the 1940’s. She had been asked to contribute her opinion when one contest or another was thinking of eliminating the swimsuit competition.

    She was in favor of retaining it because, as she put it, “nothing tests a woman’s poise quite like it.” Well, I guess that’s true if that means you’re constantly afraid that you look somehow less than perfect. I wonder how many women despise swimsuit shopping as compared to those who don’t.

  7. RBT says:

    Well, Miss Tanzania is ready for her post-apocalyptic gladiator fight.

  8. FashionablyEvil says:

    I thought this was the best comment on Miss United States’s costume (from a commenter at NPR):

    “My first reaction was ‘what is Napoleon doing wrapped in an American flag, and what happened to his pants?'”

  9. Brian says:

    Why isn’t the beauty contest opened up to include all?

    There are, of course, Mr. Universe competitions – I have no idea about the relative wellknownnesses, though I can name more former Mr. Universes (1) than Miss Universes (0).

    Two shows might be revenuous than one.

  10. karak says:

    “women still dominate when it comes to the purchase of beauty-related goods.”

    Here’s what it takes me to get ready in the mornings and look conventionally beautiful:

    shampoo, conditioner, razor, shaving cream, bodywash, face wash, skin moisturizer, face moisturizer, leave-in conditioner, blowdryer, pick, brush, curling iron, straightener, hair spray, tweezers, under-eye concealer, foundation, powder, blush, eyeliner, mascara, eyeshadow hold, 1-3 eyeshadows, eyelash crimper, lipstick, and I also brush my teeth.

    My boyfriend? All in one bodywash (soap, conditioner, and shampoo). Electric razor. Toothbrush.

    Yeah I mad.

  11. Ashley says:

    Here’s the way I see it. A lot of pageants today aren’t just “beauty contests,” although the beauty aspect of it is largely what is displayed on your TV screen at home, so it’s easy to get the impression that it’s a “Who’s the hottest babe?” contest. This is more of what it used to be. Realistically, nowadays these pageants serve as a platform for women to be role models of the total package: Brains, beauty, accomplishments, ambition, talent, and strong values. These women are usually already outstanding members of their community and the most work doesn’t go into their hair and makeup. I can’t tell you that for sure because I have done this myself.

    Granted that different pageant systems differ from organization to another. Miss America is more conservative and tradition pageant about being a scholarship program more than anything else. Miss USA, which is run by Donald Trump, focuses a bit more on fashion and trends. Then there are other pageants like the ones I compete in that are more about community service and having a cause to stand for. So they all have different focuses, but at any rate I think it is unfair to put these competitions in the same category as, say, MTV’s Spring Break Bikini Contest. That is a contest that is created solely for the purpose of putting women on display for viewing pleasure, but that is not the pageant industry’s focus.

  12. m says:

    I’m sorry that I have no real content to add… but damn, are Napoleon hats a huge turn on, or what?

  13. Pingback: Beauty Pageants and Feminism « hahayourefunny

  14. “Ideally, beauty contests will eventually go the way of the dodo. The Miss USA pageant is not, by any stretch, good for feminism or good for women as a class.”

    Women are not a class, they are a gender. If you want to be taken seriously, please use the correct terms next time.

    • Jill says:

      Women are not a class, they are a gender. If you want to be taken seriously, please use the correct terms next time.

      Ha. If you want to be taken seriously, please brush up on feminism 101.

  15. Nahida says:

    karak: shampoo, conditioner, razor, shaving cream, bodywash, face wash, skin moisturizer, face moisturizer, leave-in conditioner, blowdryer, pick, brush, curling iron, straightener, hair spray, tweezers, under-eye concealer, foundation, powder, blush, eyeliner, mascara, eyeshadow hold, 1-3 eyeshadows, eyelash crimper, lipstick, and I also brush my teeth.

    You use a curling iron AND a straightener? O.O

  16. karak says:

    @Nahida

    Straighten the body, curl the ends around my face slightly. Not *much* curling, but yep.

    And then, since I use all these heating elements on my hair, I must then go out and buy the special products for hair damaged by heating elements. Like… I KNOW I’m doing it to myself but I REALLY like the way my hair looks…ugh.

  17. Ann says:

    This made my day. Poor Ms. Botswana. What’s up with the club? Or is it a shovel?

    RBT:
    My pre-debate thoughts are that this is hilarious:
    http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/62603630.html

  18. Athenia says:

    I watched part of the contest and what really struck me was how much it was like a tourism commerical—go to France where you can surf! Isn’t San Paulo a great city? Look at what the girls are doing here!

    Um, can’t we promote tourism another way? Also, can’t we incorporate an actual competition into it? Judging Miss Whatever’s hip bones aren’t exactly my cup of tea.

  19. Nia says:

    @ Old Trout – completely agree. The biggest problem I have with these contests is the emphasis on “women-born-women” only – I don’t see it as any different from the anti-trans Michigan Women’s Music Festival. And it pisses me off.

    @ Karak – yep.

    With all that said… what occurs for me, mostly, when I see the anti-beauty contest debate is how similar the rhetoric often becomes to feminist anti-sex worker rhetoric, ie women using their bodies for gain. My personal view, which from my reading reads similarly to what Jill wrote above, is basically that there’s enough cards stacked against us, in this fight use everything you’ve got.

    For me, it doesn’t follow that when society advances beyond patriarchy, whatever that may mean, beauty contests will be old news. Maybe they will reflect a new standard of beauty. Maybe they will actually reflect diversity. Maybe they won’t be racist. Maybe they will be just one of the many ways that people engage in competition.

    I don’t know. I’m tall and blond and like make up, and I use it and get paid. And if there was no patriarchy, I’d probably still be a sex worker, coz I like it, and it beats the hell out of desperate poverty. I can imagine many beauty contestants and models feeling the same way. More power to them.

  20. haley says:

    I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with beauty pageants. I mean, I agree with the critiques made in this article and elsewhere about the ridiculousness and misogyny of them, but I see that as being a problem with our society’s concept of beauty in general. I could just as easily have a “crusty punk beauty pageant” and have all the traveler kids, queer, and punk people come together with some beer, music and a stage and we’d have a jolly time of our beauty pageant. :)

  21. Fawn says:

    The way I look at it, it’s the same reasoning for high school and college sports, which pretty much requires young men to exploit their physical talents to win a chance at higher education and advantage their futures. And people like watching it, and the boys aren’t stupid either. Maybe it’s less a gender issue than a youth issue, but may be both.

    I dunno. I buy all that crap, but never use it.

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