The bright beams of the stage lights focus on my face as I strut into the glare with a smile, grinning at my opponents and staring into the eyes of my judges with resolute confidence. I accept the microphone and speak with grace and emphasis. I speak of my goals: to attend U.C. Berkeley, to study Political Science, and to become a news reporter for a major media outlet. As someone who appears sarcastic and aloof, loves competing in policy debate, and is an ardent feminist, a beauty pageant might not be my expected speaking outlet.
Pageantry is widely attacked as sexually objectifying and privileging beauty over brains, and especially in light of the recent Miss America crowning, the practice has been criticized in major media outlets. Popular comedian John Oliver provided a scathing commentary on pageants, and has been praised on the internet for his feminist politics. But for all of pageantry’s flaws, competing was an empowering experience for me, and it can be appreciated through a feminist lens.
John Oliver’s “hilarious and enlightening” rant was widely shared and appreciated for demonstrating “why we need feminism.” While I appreciate Oliver explaining this to me, some of his claims are not constructive or very feminist. Although he rightfully questions the claim that Miss America provides $45 million in scholarships per year, the problematic part begins when he shows clips of contestants dancing to his laughing audience, or when he describes “butt glue,” an adhesive used to keep garments in place. He argues that pageants are not only ridiculous, but also chauvinistic and archaic. However, he comes across as pretentious and oppressive in his own right when he oversimplifies the competition as a laughable event where women accept scholarships in bikinis. By portraying pageants as exercises that solely objectify the contestants, he overlooks the accomplishments and intelligence of the competitors. And who is he to decide that dancing in heels or using glue to hold your swimsuit in place is oppressive and backwards?
This is better answered by other feminist critiques of pageants, which argue that organizations such as Miss America uphold unrealistic, societal standards of beauty. Pageants “feed into a much greater, much more destructive cultural framework that cyclically works to dehumanize women and to reinforce an unattainable standard of beauty,” wrote blogger Julie Zeilinger. This opinion is valid, since pageant contestants are inevitably critiqued on their physical appearance. During the Miss United States pageant earlier this year, photos of Miss Indiana competing in the swimsuit competition popped up all over the internet, with people commenting that the size 4 contestant was “thicker” than the other women. But if one chooses to compete in a pageant, why is someone else’s business to tell them they are wrong? Just because a woman is traditionally beautiful does not make her any less intelligent or capable of making her own decisions, and there’s nothing wrong with her feeling empowered through that outlet. It also does not exclude her from also being proud of her other accomplishments. Feminism is about inclusivity, and vilifying women who are proud of how they look because they fall within a narrowly defined category of beauty is not only alienating, but also falls victim to the same patriarchal logic that attempts to control behaviors deemed acceptable or unacceptable.
I competed in several pageants, my most memorable one being when I contended for the title of National American Miss California. Pageant contestants are often portrayed as unintelligent, and people like to use Miss Teen South Carolina’s botched on-stage question as an example. But I found myself surrounded by motivated and determined young women who all hoped to attend college. Some aimed to become fashion designers, others dreamed of attending law school, and I wanted to be and still hope to become a journalist. At National American Miss, there is no mandatory swimsuit competition, and contestants of all ages participate in interview and speaking competitions. I learned how to ace an interview at the age of 16, and face the challenge of giving a speech in front of a full auditorium of listeners. At organizations like Miss United States or Miss America, contestants arrive with an issue that they want to present to their audience. Pageants are a way for contestants to raise awareness about their platforms, and many Miss Americas have used their publicity to become activists for their causes. Current Miss America Kira Kazantsev’s platform is speaking out against sexual assault in the military, and most feminists would be proud of the work Kazantsev has done with Planned Parenthood to broaden sexual education programs. A woman’s decision to compete in a pageant should not detract from her accomplishments or make her less of an icon. And critics such as John Oliver detract from these very real accomplishments when they trivialize both the pageants and the pageant contestants as vapid, superficial, and objectifying.
Some pageants can be problematic, like those presented in TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, for example. It is indeed unsettling to see a 3 year old prancing around dressed as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but grouping Miss America, Miss USA, and other organizations into that same category prevents us from recognizing the intellect, dedication, and even activism behind these contestants. Today’s feminism is about allowing people to be whomever they choose to be, whether masculine, feminine, neither, or anywhere in between. There is no reason that this can’t be true for women who choose to compete in pageants; and if she wants to curl her hair and become a doctor, so be it.
Featured image source: TheHollywoodGossip.com, September 2014