Abolishing the Beauty Pageant
Why are beauty pageants still a thing?
Last night was an evening of "glamor and elegance" at the the 61st annual Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood Hotel. Fifty “beautiful,” toned women plastered in masks of elaborate makeup, with long glistening locks and gaudy gowns, competitively paraded their greatest talents across the stage. Miss Connecticut, 25-year-old Erin Brady of South Glastonbury, took home the title of "Miss USA."
But what is the purpose of this pageant anyway? And how effective are such events in engendering strong female leaders?
“These women are savvy, goal-oriented and aware. The delegates who become part of the Miss Universe Organization display those characteristics in their everyday lives, both as individuals, who compete with hope of advancing their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and as women who seek to improve the lives of others,” the Miss Universe Organization boasts on their website.
The contestants humbly (and oh so articulately) shared heart-wrenching stories of starving Haitian children they helped save, and incoherent plans for solving hunger and implementing world peace.
But the Miss USA event works to contrive a specific, artificial conception of what the embodiment of “ideal beauty” is, reminding us how much work there is to be done to spread new norms of genuine appreciation for women in an authentic, non-objectifying way.
While the majority of the evening's event revolved around the aesthetic appeal of women wearing various clothing items, one contestant's response to a question about the gender wage gap has garnered significant media attention.
The proctor asked: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children women are the primary earners. Yet, they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”
Marissa Powell, Miss Utah responded:
"I think we can relate this back to education and how we are continuing to try to strive to (pause) figure out how to create jobs, right now. That is the biggest problem and I think, especially the men, are um, seen as the leaders of this and so we need to figure out how to create education better so we can solve this problem”
I’m sure some of the incoherence may be attributed to the undeniable stress of answering a question in front of millions of viewers. We can only hope Powell is capable of forming complete sentences in her everyday life.
Public displays of such intellectual ineptitude from women who are supposed to be setting strong examples for our nation’s young girls continue to perpetuate a society that reduces women to vapid vanity receptacles. Such competitions give no rewards or praise for intellect, independence or individuality. Questioning the contestants doesn't even take place until the top five contenders have been selected—suggesting that up until that point it isn't necessary to know if these women can even speak.
Women are still underrepresented in politics and are disproportionately outnumbered in business leadership positions. We are bombarded with messages telling us our own bodies aren’t ours, and constantly reminded that beauty is one of our most praised characteristics in all the “women’s magazines”—the ones with Photoshopped women who tell you how to be skinny and look younger, and which products you must buy to achieve this standard.
Miss USA reinforces the idea that beauty is hierarchical, and that amongst a group of 50 stunning women, there is one who is the best.
Pageants are a cog of oppression in a system which values women’s bodies as objects to appease others. Beautiful women’s bodies are not for themselves, but for men’s sexual pleasure, for selling products, and for childbearing. Sadder still, beauty pageant norms are not nearly as dated as many viewers mindlessly write them off to be.
There is still a lot of work to be done, on many fronts, to achieve true equality for women. If beauty pageants stop being acceptable Sunday night family programming one day, it might mean that we are a little closer.
Anya Callahan is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @LezAnya.