There’s a lot of different ways to protest. Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks. But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior. And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!
The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts. We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking. We need to use what we have at our disposal. And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government. Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.
At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.” Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.” She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men. The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures. Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)
Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada. She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government. She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government. And the Chinese leadership was pissed. Majorly. They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant. This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.
Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.
What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society. While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.” Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest. I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it. Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform? Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.
It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty. But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people. Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?
Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb. Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment. Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.