More than a game of crowns: The global political economy of beauty pageants

624969_m644When the newly crowned Miss World 2013 Megan Lynne Young arrived in the Philippines last Thursday, she was given a glorious homecoming and even summoned by the Congress to recognize her achievement. Megan wore a dazzling Filipiniana gown, her hair neatly tied in a bun, a turquoise-blue crown resting on her head. During the post World War II era, international beauty pageants received immense popularity as demonstrated by the participation of various countries worldwide. Despite the prominence, beauty pageants had not eluded criticism, mainly spawned by feminists, for relegating women into mere objects. Notably, the Miss Thailand 1973 beauty pageant was suspended when conservatives denounced the pageant as a form of “selling” women in an eccentric “meat market”. But at the onset of postmodern age, beauty pageants not only transformed contenders into icons of hegemonic imagery of beauty but also constructed new roles both for countries in the sphere of international relations, and women in the realm of public diplomacy and cultural governance.

Interest to pageantries and economic freedom

Since 1968, the year when the historic women’s liberation protest was staged in the United States, protests against beauty pageants have become a frequent occurrence. Nonetheless, beauty contests, international and otherwise, continue to gain interest among nations.

A study proposes that one primary factor which accounts for a country’s pageantry interest is its level of economic freedom. Lawson & Ross used the number of semi-finalist representations to the Miss Universe pageant as a measure for pageantry interest and success across countries while they employed economic freedom as a determinant. The results show that countries where level of economic freedom is high are more likely to be underrepresented in the pageant’s semi-finalist round. These findings imply two things: (1) These countries offer more opportunities for women, discouraging them in the process to join in competitions for social and economic status as well as international recognition; and (2) Feminists who are unreceptive of pageantries could consider market liberalism as a potent cultural force in reducing women’s interest in pageants.

The crown and the queen

The interest of nations in joining beauty pageants may go beyond the forces of market liberalism. International beauty pageants create a venue where a State can confirm its sovereignty by vying for the coveted title along with other contenders. In this case, beauty pageants are viewed as a typology of an international society where sending a representative warrants acceptance of the country to that society and winning the title places her to a higher pedestal. Furthermore, hosting an international beauty pageant is as illustrious as winning the crown itself since it connotes that a country is prosperous, wealthy and, thus a “model world citizen”. It is for this reason that China became the host of Miss World 2003 pageant, lifting in the process its 54-year ban on beauty pageants.

The beauty queen is therefore akin to a diplomat who assumes the responsibility of showing to the international audience what her country has to offer or what she can contribute to the advancement of an advocacy. For instance, when Megan was chosen to perform in Dances of the World segment of Miss World 2013, she became a cultural diplomat. Megan gave a piece of Filipino culture to an audience who may not have seen a performance of Singkil, a traditional dance among Muslims in the Southern Philippines. Miss Earth 2008 Karla Henry became an environmental diplomat when she committed a year of service to promote environmental projects and raise awareness to various environmental issues around the world.

Regarded as a national symbol, the beauty queen can also become a passive agent if not recipient of an ideology. WhenMiss Thailand 1994 Areeya Chumsai enlisted herself on a nine-week basic military training course in the Thai Army, she was unaware that she created an ideal image of the “Thai woman”: strong and heroic but at the same time docile and submissive. During that time where militarized nationalism was highly valued, Areeya became a positive image of the militarization of Thai society. Hence, a beauty queen may not only be a source of national pride but also a reflection of her country’s national identity.

Beauty and the beholder

Any culture has its own conception of beauty. Albeit some cultures adapt the dominant one, some challenge it. The Miss Arab World, the equivalent of Miss Universe pageant in Southwest Asia, veers away from the framework of Western beauty contests. What brings uniqueness to Miss Arab World is its establishment of a progressive brand of beauty. The candidates neither compete for a swimsuit competition nor dress scanty clothing. Instead, they wear their homeland’s national costume and traditional Islamic veils.

As one scholar claims, “it is common to view beauty pageants as evidence of Euro-American cultural imperialism.” The construction of a Western standard of beauty, let alone the hegemonic imagery of beauty, can be seen as a result of the West’s commanding gaze on which is beautiful and which is not. Thus, an apparent deviance to this predominant worldview is seen as a departure from the standard; the deviant is then rendered the opposite of the prevailing norm.

Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder but this depends much on who the beholder is, where he is from, how he makes sense of things, etc. Though the concept of beauty in beauty pageants leans toward the Western idea and emphasizes the external rather than the internal, history tells us that countries hitherto have become willing participants in this game of glory. More than just a spectacle of glamor and wit, a beauty pageant is a battle for recognition and respect among countries. Truth is, States can be much competitive than Olympic athletes and reality show contestants. It is for this reason that beauty pageants thrive and flourish.

 

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 17 October 2013. To read the articles written by my colleagues, just click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/publications/blog-a-different-view/articles

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