Are beauty pageants feminist or sexist? This has long been a topic of debate for me and my peers. In the Philippines, specifically, beauty pageants are welcomed with enthusiastic fervor comparable to that of an Olympic competition. I will even venture to say Filipinos are obsessed with pageants and I don’t exaggerate.
Seeing as Miss Universe is THE highest point of the beauty pageant industry, one can imagine the excitement sweeping over my country when the season arrives. This may be due to our infamous pinoy pride, wherein Filipinos will clamor to support you no matter what as long as you have a drop of Filipino blood in your body. It may also be due to our misogynistic roots since our very culture relishes in the over-scrutiny and control of women’s bodies.
Before the trolls come a-knockin’, I will say now I don’t care much for Miss Universe nor do I actively protest it. Do what makes you happy, y’know? I do think it is important we inspect how Miss Universe, as a platform, impacts and influences society because personally at a micro-level I’ve seen more bad than good. But then again, I’m not part of the beauty pageant industry so I may be wrong and it would good to learn something new.
As usual I will embed links which will take you to articles that offer more context and depth to a statement or incident. I will speak mostly from a personal perspective, drawing conclusions from my limited reality AKA my Facebook timeline and social connections, thus I am aware some things I may conclude may not be true for another person.
Let’s attempt to dissect the pretty and the ugly side of Miss U.
There’s no denying Miss Universe has moved forward in terms of its feminism. With the new format having several judges, it now allows the standards of beauty to be more flexible. What’s more awesome is how amazing the recent contestants have been.
Hell, I will proudly say Miss Universe 2016 Pia Wurtzbach exemplifies girl power and even calls out slut-shaming though I did not agree with her answer during the final Q&A. There was also that instance when Miss Universe 1996 stood up against the industry’s (cough, Donald Trump, cough) sexism. The contestants have numerous times graciously handled criticism and endorsed dialogue on important issues such as feminism, violence against women and children, body positivity, AIDS, black civil rights, and racism.
Plus the amount of work they put themselves through is admirable. Beauty pageant contestants don’t just slap on make-up, walk on stage, and get a crown. For instance, my friend, who was a contestant in a prestigious pageant, would often come home with muscle aches and blisters after training in six-inch heels performing an elevated version of the duck walk (wherein you squat, waddle, and walk to boost your balance) at a public parking lot.
These self-disciplined ladies put serious effort in their craft in order to be where they are. They have a rigorous workout regimen, healthy diet, runway training, poise training, beauty camps, etc. that most of us probably couldn’t handle. Not to mention the weight of emotional and mental pressure they have to carry! They certainly deserve respect.
To quote Mayette Tabada, ”A beauty titlist must have the self-abnegation of a saint, the discipline of an athlete, and the mental preparedness of a journalist. Add a politician’s survival instincts, a diplomat’s reservoirs of good will, and a gymnast’s flexibility. All these to become a spectacle, tottering in four-inch heels and posturing before gawkers mentally weighing them as cuts of meat. A beauty princess is resigned to have her past examined, her grammar corrected. Passing all these tests, she accepts that she cannot please everyone in the world/earth/universe.”
Being Miss Universe is also a full-time job. You have to travel the world for charity work (it’s not all glitz and glamour despite how it sounds), educate yourself about other countries’ culture and customs, and raise awareness for many issues. Basically a woman is not less feminist simply because she voluntarily delights in pageants, and to shame her for it is actually perpetuating misogyny. If you police a woman’s choice to express her bodily autonomy on a stage because YOU don’t think that fits your definition of feminism, then that’s not feminist.
At the core feminism has always been about equality and uplifting women. Feminism means supporting women’s choices even if it doesn’t coincide with your own, even if you think it’s trivial. If a woman feels happy, accomplished, and empowered joining Miss Universe that is her choice and I fully support it.
One may argue that Miss Universe isn’t feminist because it pits women against each other with a heavy focus on lady-like beauty guidelines, but again – women should be allowed to do whatever they want without fear of being judged or humiliated. If someone wants to subject themselves to such a contest then cool. We must give these women credit that they are aware what a competition like Miss Universe entails.
TLDR; Miss Universe gives women a unique opportunity to get a career and education (and tons of cool free stuff!), and it also celebrates women. Whether a woman is a Miss Universe, a stripper, or a businesswoman she deserves respect with regards to her work and her person. And if you think otherwise, then you need to reevaluate your principles.
SEXISM AND OTHER PROBLEMS
I feel as though Miss Universe’s feminism relies majorly on the contestant themselves. As a platform and industry, it seems lacking. Miss Universe would still exist even if the women involved decided not to act/be feminist so as long as people continue to watch the show. Here are my qualms with Miss U.
1. Promotes body-shaming – I said earlier that Miss U is feminist because it celebrates women. However, it celebrates only a specific type of woman: that with euro-centric features, long hair, a certain height, and prim and proper demeanor. In the Philippines beauty pageant managers admit to scout candidates who are ”at least five feet, five inches tall and a stunning face. Some imperfections like snaggletooth or pimples largely affect the results. Thus, these are resolved by a trip to the dentist and dermatologist.”
Recently, Miss Universe Canada 2017 was criticized for being ”larger” than most contestants which is bullshit, rude, and backwards. And we all know how Miss Universe 1996 was fat-shamed to the point of depression. Then there exists these extreme beauty camps in Venezuela that pressure 12-year-old girls to get plastic surgery in hopes of winning a crown. A former Miss Venezuela contestant admitted to sewing her tongue so she would not eat solid foods, an advice given to her by the president of the Miss Venezuela pageant. The same man was quoted saying ”Feminists are ugly Betties with no hope of a fix. They are all horrendous.” Yikes.
Once more I will stress that the Miss Universe candidates ARE AWARE what they’re getting into and that is their choice. But we must ask how such a limited and set view on beauty affects ordinary women/young girls (and whether that effect is harmful), especially those living in poor countries who have no inkling of the values of feminism, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment, much less access to learning or acquiring them.
2. Promotes misogyny – Personally my main issue with Miss Universe lies with its audience. Every Miss U season I brace myself for the diatribe of Facebook posts which either unfairly criticizes a candidate (or two), mocks a candidate, insults a candidate, or sexually objectifies a candidate – and I have to pretend to let this go because it’s my own family, friends, colleagues, and former teachers who do this. For real, if the Filipino audience hates on you as a beauty pageant candidate they will speak of you as if you burned down their house.
Miss Universe Philippines 2017 Maxine Medina was bashed online by Filipinos for not being able to speak good english. Miss Universe Haiti 2017 was criticized for her ”poorly applied contour and highlight.” Miss Universe China 2017 was the target of perverted comments due to her thin-clothed swimsuit. Miss Universe Spain 2017 was lauded as ”ulam” (delicious meal) by Filipino men and that’s not even the worst of the comments. Miss Universe Guam 2017 was teased for resembling a local transsexual (note: comparing them does not challenge the transwoman’s validity or beauty as a woman. I wrote this down because the intent of the people who posted the comparison on Facebook was not to praise the similar attractiveness of both, but to use the trans-identity of one to drag down the other AKA insinuating Miss Guam’s beauty is worth less since she resembles a transgender).
What’s worse is when former Miss Universe title-holders themselves advocate this disgusting behavior such as when Miss Universe 1969 said Miss Universe Canada 2017 could use to lose 8 pounds. No, just no.
3. Promotes subtle racism and lacks inclusiveness – Miss Universe Japan 2015 was dragged for being a half-breed which honestly I think had something to do with her skin color more than her being half-Japanese. Although she received backlash, it is actually a positive thing for women like her (those who do not fit the Miss U stereotype) to be in the pageant as it will press for diversity and bi-racial acceptance. But audience-racism aside, even the Miss Universe judges seem to lean towards a Western standard of beauty which then puts colored candidates at a disadvantage.
In the entire history of Miss Universe, only five black girls won the title. FIVE out of sixty-five Miss Universe competitions. The first time black women were even allowed on a pageant was in 1923 and they were not candidates, but dancers performing as black slaves. The first black-skinned Miss Universe got crowned in 1977. Meanwhile there are only ten Asian Miss Universe winners.
Speaking of inclusiveness, before the ban on transgender women was lifted, a finalist for Miss Universe Canada was disqualified for being trans. Many contestants from either Miss U or other pageants were also disqualified or heavily criticized for silly things such as weight and age.
4. On exploitation and transparency – In this year’s 65th Miss Universe held in the Philippines, I question the ethics and hypocrisy of the organizers (such as the environmentally irresponsible whale shark excursion). There they are sweeping the homeless and the hungry off the streets to paint a false picture of how clean and organized the Philippines is (hint: it’s not) as our candidate struts with a headpiece worth 1 million pesos. It’s such a juxtaposition – beautiful able-bodied women wearing expensive gowns in a poor country that invested a ton of money in a beauty pageant, while said country’s own women continue to be victims of poverty, violence, and sexual tourism.
Although Miss Universe itself has not been under fire for sex trafficking, the beauty pageant industry in general has. See: here and here. Additionally, the judging/scoring system of Miss U and other pageants isn’t all that transparent.
Going back to personal experience, the friend I mentioned earlier later told me not to expect her to win the pageant because she alleged judges and handlers already decided another contestant would win days before the actual coronation night took place. I doubted her until she proved me right when said contestant DID win. After the event, a quick chat with a couple beauty pageant insiders also confirmed this was true. (I am not asserting it was/is true. I am merely stating what others have relayed to me.)
Moving on to another acquaintance of mine who was involved in a different, lesser known beauty pageant. Her close friends claimed she exchanged sexual favors with a judge so that she would get a good score from him (she won the pageant, by the way). I confronted her with the rumor one day and she casually admitted it was true.
If rigging takes place in smaller pageants which are supposed to be stepping stones towards bigger pageants like Miss U, then doesn’t that weaken the credibility Miss U has as a legitimate competition? Doesn’t this raise red flags on the pro-women claims of beauty pageants?
Miss Universe has recently become more feminist owing to some of its excellent, woke representatives, but there is no denying the industry perpetuates sexism and misogyny while doing little to counteract or address this. Due to its problematic nature, it also brings out the worst in people. Though Miss Universe can not be blamed entirely for how its audience acts, it should still be held accountable for the toxic behaviors it encourages and stimulates.
I admit during my research the feminist aspect of Miss Universe was more difficult to justify. This was not for lack of trying. I simply could not find much argument for it aside from bodily autonomy, but if you DO have a feminist point in favor of Miss Universe please put it forward in the comments so others like me will be made aware.