Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

“I’m not gonna parade around in a swimsuit like some airhead bimbo that goes by the name, what, Gracie Lou Freebush and all she wants is world peace?” Those are the words fictional FBI agent Gracie Hart tells Special Agent Eric Matthews when he breaks the news that she will be going undercover in the Miss United States beauty pageant, in order to prevent a group from bombing the event.

Sandra Bullock’s foul-mouthed, slightly neurotic, tomboyish and as-it-so-happens-quite-pretty gun-wielding investigator from 2000’s Miss Congeniality reminds audiences of all that is wrong with a bunch of leggy gals parading their wares for the benefit of mass adoration, veneration and masturbation: that pageants are a meat market, pure and simple. Or, are they? At the end of the film, Ms Freebush (aka Gracie Hart) says of the competition: “I came here and I realised that these women are smart, terrific people who are just trying to make a difference in the world.” The film undermines its own satire by giving kudos to the current view punted by the Miss World Organisation; not only are ‘delegates’ intelligent and gorgeous, they’re nice too.

Nice – uh… anyone see Drop Dead Gorgeous? But OK, we’ll go with it; the 90s was a crazy time. Intelligent: we’ll take that too. There do seem to be a couple of doctor, lawyer-types hankering for applause. But brains and a good attitude do not preclude delegates from parading around a platform like Lipizzaner horses, heads cocked, feathers flying; body parts scrutinised and poses analysed – personality irrelevant. The subscript: only with beauty does intelligence matter.

It is thus no surprise that 64 years after the first Miss World title was won, feminists continue to lobby against beauty pageants. Protests against the objectification of women have been going on for decades (it’s so old, it’s boring) but perhaps we’re missing the point entirely. Feminism also champions a woman’s right to forge her own destiny, to apply her sexuality with individuality and autonomy. Perhaps a 21st century woman doesn’t want to be a corporate mogul, clad in trousers with no children and a harem of men waiting in line. Perhaps the proverbial modern woman finds fulfilment in playing the Stepford Wife? And perhaps she reserves the right to have her worth adjudicated by a panel of no-name judges?

If she wants to cook, clean and raise her children from home or be rated according to the width of her smile, the size of her breasts and the length of her legs… if the choice is hers (forget the social context that has defined such choice), it’s empowering in and of itself? Right? Has the Miss World pageant ushered in a new generation of delegate who uses ‘elective nudism’ (and its lesser forms – modelling beach wear, for example) to make a difference, rendering futile the moral high ground preached by activists?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if one of these pretty ladies spoke the truth: “I’m using my looks because in a world that lauds cosmetic value I’ll make a bigger impact as a beauty queen than as an engineer or marketing director?”

The five whole protestors who turned up to demonstrate against Miss World 2014, held in London’s ExCel, made quite a statement; that no one cares. The excuses lodged by the London Feminist Network for lack of appearance are: transport problems, cold and Christmas. If Mary Wollenscraft knew that some bells and tinsel, a slow bus and a paltry five degree weather forecast were the things that kept women from revolting against the world’s most iconic symbol of objectification and patriarchism, not only would she be turning in her grave but it’s safe to say that some of Britain’s present-day suffragettes will be meeting the ghost of Christmas-vengeance this festive season.

And yet, in the same breath, the town council of Chivilcoy in Argentina recently banned beauty queen competitions on the count of being “sexist.” According to the BBC, council members criticised pageants for being dangerous; propagating violence towards women and encouraging obsession with physical beauty and illnesses like bulimia and anorexia. It’s a decision that rages against the effects of superficial beauty. So yes, some people do care; they just don’t live in London.

The Miss World pageant sells itself as a beacon of light and hope, a mantra spewed by the organisation’s latest minion-Queen, Rolene Strauss from South Africa. In a recent interview with Focus on Africa’s Peter Okwoche, who wanted to know what the new Miss World thought about a top Nigerian University offering a reward of $8,000 plus a car to a beauty contest winner and mere $800 plus a laptop to the uni’s top student as congratulations for achievement, Strauss, disappointingly, belched the usual boring jargon. Rather than committing to an actual answer, the beauty queen vomited diplomacy, choosing to euphemise the situation by parroting stuff about visions of unity, giving back, educated women entering beauty pageants and that we should all be equal. Translation: “world peace” (yawn).

The politics that cascades like yards of silk from the mouths of pageant delegates makes it very difficult to buy into any sort of ironic feminism that could purchase redemption for these women, who perpetuate female stereotype without the single bat of a well-lashed eyelid. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if one of these pretty ladies spoke the truth: “Hey, my country has some serious issues and I am using my looks to manipulate the situation because in a world that lauds cosmetic value I’ll make a bigger impact as a beauty queen than as an engineer, academic or marketing director? I also like attention and want to be famous.” Honesty, what a joy! But that’s not what it’s about, is it?

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