From Camels to Geopolitics: Why, Even in 2016, We Care About Pageants & What They Say About Us

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Over the past week I noticed a number of stories about beauty contests in my feed.  That’s not unusual.  What WAS weird was the type of stories.  Of course there were a few about the Steve Harvey guffaw at the Miss Universe contest, but there was another about a terrorist threatening to kidnap the recently anointed Miss Iraq and, even more bizarrely, one about a beauty contest for camels!

What gives?  Why are there so many beauty pageants out there.  And more interestingly, why do we care so much that people write stories about them, adapt them for their cultures (and local animals) and even want to kill people associated with them??  It’s 2016 already!  Haven’t we evolved past the old fashioned notion that people’s beauty should be judged?

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourselves: “frankly, I don’t care about pageants, move on.”  I can understand that.  But understanding why some of us care about something seemingly insignificant can open our eyes into what makes us ALL tick.

I could write a whole masters thesis on the pros or cons of beauty contests.  But I won’t.  And I’m not making any judgements here.  I just want to understand why people all over the world create and support such spectacles.  And I’m not the only one who is scratching her head here.  There have been scholarly works (The Why’s of Beauty Contests), books (Beauty Queens and the Global Stage) and a PBS series (Origins of the Beauty Pageant) developed around answering this question.

None of these sources have fully answered the question for me but in reading them all, I think I see some explanation.

Let’s begin by recognizing that beauty matters.  Whether we like it or not, every culture admires, creates and rewards beautiful objects and people.  Of course every culture has a different interpretation of what is beautiful, but in the end, each and every nation has written poems, novels and songs about someone or other’s beauty.

Ok, but why do we have to judge it?  Why should beauty become something we compete over?  To be fair, the human species competes over, well, almost everything.  That’s why we have the Olympics, national sports, Emmy awards, you name it.  Hey, we even compete with ourselves thanks to Fitbit.   Because beauty is one of those things that we care about, it too has become a source of competition.

But then why can’t beauty pageants just remain another harmless form of entertainment?  Why do they matter so much to people?  Based on my research (albeit somewhat limited) I learned that beauty pageants, especially outside of the Western World, are loaded with political, cultural, and social significance.  On the one hand, there is a strong antipathy toward them, as they are a blatant and, for some, immoral import from the West.  (These contests actually started in ancient Greece but took shape in the U.S. thanks to Phineas T. Barnum (yes, as in the circus :))  On the other hand, most cultures take this construct and reshape it to match their cultural values, i.e., judge beauty but their own standards.  In a way, the pageants become a source of cultural pride.  Even in the U.S., some early pageants were a form of rebellion.  I wrote a post last year (The Racial Dimension of Plus Sized Women) about the history of African-American’s elaborate dress code for Sunday church services.  Dressing up hearkens back to the slave era and how Sunday was the one day a week when slaves could dress with dignity and beauty.  Slaves would parade down the streets to show off their beauty and claim ownership of their humanity.

Beauty pageants are clearly fraught with conflicting ideals and a mix of emotions.  That is exactly why they matter to people.  These contests are a response to our innate and global love for beauty.  But they also tap into the debasement that we fear comes along with admiring people for their beauty alone.  They are examples of Western infiltration but a means to rebel against it at the same time.  They tap into our love for competition and our fear of losing.  Whether we support these contests or not, at least we have a better understanding of why so many of us care about them.  And maybe we just have a slightly better understanding of us all.

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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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.