I was on my way to Los Angeles Sunday night and caught the Miss USA beauty pageant on the plane. While I was very proud that our standards of beauty have broadened so much that the first Arab-American was crowned, I was still cringing the whole time. The contestants were certainly attractive, and I’m sure very savvy, driven, and resourceful (or they wouldn’t have gotten this far). But the show was designed to make the women seem ridiculous. Not only did the women parade around in a highly dramatic fashion but in the pageant’s attempt to include intelligence and eloquence as criteria, the women ended up fueling the pretty airhead image people have of good looking women. These women had one minute to answer thorny questions that top politicians, economists, or social theorists struggle with. I mean, come on! How on earth can these women appear intelligent when the pageant is designed (intentionally or not) to make them appear downright stupid?
Poise and eloquence have been a part of these pageants for decades, and I appreciate the attempt of the pageant to reflect our need to see women as more than pretty mannequins. But it backfires. All it does is actually reinforce the notion that beauty MUST be associated with stupidity. Let me explain. My 6-year old son, Boaz, is an awesome chess player, and just last weekend he set a record for his school at the national championship in Atlanta. Why do I bring this up? At his tournament he was asked to play chess. That’s it. He wasn’t expected to show off his throwing arm or his musical abilities. He was born with a skill that he has honed over the past few years thanks to my husband’s tutelage (I can’t play for my life by the way!) The tournament was his chance to test his skill and have some fun. He certainly has other talents. He knows how to make friends fast, he acts out dramatic battles with his brother and he’s very loving to his sister. But there was no expectation that he reflect these abilities at the tournament.
Like my son, these pageant contestants were born with a gift: beauty. And I’m sure, no, I know, they have other gifts. Surely they are highly disciplined, have a strong work ethic and a gift for persuasion to get so many people to support them. But why must a beauty contest be anything more than what it is? The focus on beauty isn’t implying that these women are ONLY beautiful. Just as my son’s tournament isn’t implying that he’s defined solely by chess. In fact, by adding more “talents” to the criteria list, the pageant is belittling beauty. And, like I said before, the additional criteria force these women to appear ludicrous. Let’s face it, if you asked a bunch of adult chess players these same questions in front of millions of viewers, do you think they could answer them brilliantly in 60 seconds or less?
I have nothing against pageants. They have been part of our history for centuries and have served many women over the years. Pageants elevated women out of their often poor socio-economic stations back in the 19th century (see Lois Banner’s American Beauty for more detail) and, decades later, gave many the means to go to college. In essence they’ve actually empowered women. While some women get scholarships because they were born with a talent for shooting hoops, there’s no reason others shouldn’t be rewarded for their innate talent to attract others.
That being said, if someone asked me whether I’d be willing to prepare my daughter for and encourage her participation in beauty pageants, I would probably say no. Partly because it’s so hard for me to imagine, as she’s a big tomboy (thanks to having very “boyish” brothers.) But really I think it’s because I’m affected by the very prejudice that I’m decrying. I don’t want her to be labeled vain, frivolous and stupid. I would want her to put her time against more cerebral pursuits, especially because she’s a girl. While women’s power has grown exponentially in so many spheres — take Elena Kagen as a recent example –- I’m still holding on to that itch to prove we can do stuff just as well as, if not better than, the boys.
Perhaps my reluctance has a lot to do with HOW the contestants are portrayed and how beauty is being defined. Why must the contestants always look so posed and happy? Why can’t we get a true sense of who these women really are and how hard they worked to get to this point? Perhaps they could do real video grabs of their prep experiences where they actually appear human. Or perhaps the shows could mix up the segments so that we see the contestants dressed in fashions from different cultures. Beauty isn’t dumb, though the means by which we present it may be.
As Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest points out, we’re not going to stop desiring and being fascinated by beauty. And if there are people out there who can empower themselves through it, why ridicule and demean them? It just makes those who cultivate their beauty, gain from it, and display it, i.e.. our pageant contestants, seem stupid when they are actually just following the American dream of pushing oneself and using all available resources to succeed. Let’s continue to celebrate beauty, but let’s call for a new format: one that respects these beautiful women and gives them a forum to truly succeed.