Are pageants feminist or sexist?
Well, the verdict on that is a half and half, at least that’s what various online think pieces say. The Daily Beast’s piece about this topic says that it is sexist and pageants are not what we need right now. A VICE piece dating back two years ago agrees with this view as well.
Whatever is deemed feminine is still at the grasp of the patriarchy. Makeup, fashion and of course, pageants.
These writers argued redeemable points about pageantry in the 21st century. “As a feminist, I would say that anything that gives women power, I think, we should rethink. And not dismiss, especially in a male-dominated world,” Dr. Mina Roces, a historian at the University of New South Wales, told Rappler.
The Thought Catalog piece weighed in by recounting instances when Miss Universe contestants used the platform to elevate hard-hitting issues. Back in 2015, Miss Jamaica took the Q&A opportunity to talk about violence against women. The writer also mentioned how Pia Wurtzbach used this section of the competition to talk about HIV awareness.
She also did not fail to mention how Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado stood up against Donald Trump’s sexism, racism and blatant misogyny. You know, classic Trump. He owned the global pageant from 1996 until 2015. Alicia spoke out on the humiliation the current U.S. President put her through when she reigned as Miss Universe.
From Trump’s ownership of the competition, it’s clear that pageantry stemmed from misogyny.
From Trump’s ownership of the competition, it’s clear that pageantry stems from misogyny. “How can a competition be empowering when its most famous elimination round seems to objectify contestants based on their bodies?” former Miss Australia candidate Amanda Jacobson said in her piece for The Isthmus.
In 1952, Miss Universe started as a “bathing beauty” competition. It wasn’t until 1960 when they introduced the interview portion of the pageant. And the misogyny continues from its 30-second Q&As on poverty and uncompromising issues to its outdated swimsuit competition.
This objectification carries on within the internal politics of current pageants. And the incident regarding some Miss Earth candidates last month is proof of this.
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Last November, Miss Earth candidates came forward when a Filipino sponsor asked them for sexual favors. Candidates from Guam, New England and Canada spoke out about the sexual harassment they faced during their stay in the country. They weren’t only harassed—organizers even mocked them.
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I left to compete at an international pageant in the Philippines about a month ago. I was so excited because I had been to the Philippines before and loved the country and the people; however, the experience with the pageant was not what I had expected. I left Miss Earth because I did not feel safe under their care. The second day of the pageant I felt uncomfortable because a sponsor from the first night was given my phone number, without my consent, and was calling me asking for my hotel and room number. I gave my phone to a team manager so that she could resolve the issue, but it did not work. He showed up to almost all of my events telling me he could take care of my needs and asked for sexual favours in exchange to get me further in the pageant. I was disgusted. He showed up to a hotel some girls were staying at and when I ran into him he continued to ask for my room number. I was lucky I wasn’t staying at that hotel. After so many strange calls, I recognized his phone number and was able to block it. At an event at the Manila Yacht Club he took all of the delegates in my group to his yacht and had some girls take sultry photos. Again, I was disgusted. Later in the pageant we had another sponsor event at the Manila Yacht Club and he was telling girls he could take them to Boracay, as long as we didn’t tell any one. A group of us left to sit out side as we did not feel comfortable. He followed us outside and was upset we were not dancing with him. The team mangers laughed and told us to be nice. Eventually we were allowed to go and sit on the bus because we refused to go back to his yacht. Six girls and myself left because we felt unsafe at that event. I asked many times why more girls weren’t given the option to leave but, was never given an answer. That night a few of us were given the opportunity to bring our concerns to Miss Lorraine, the woman in charge of the pageant. I went through almost two weeks of sexual harassment before I anything was done about it. I was told he would not be around any more, but I had advised Lorraine of several other issues that were not resolved. Miss Peachy, another employee of the pageant, spoke with me at an event about…
“Myself and Canada approached Team Managers to express our disgust only to be laughed at. Another official attendee of the night told me not to cry as I would ruin my makeup! There was no respect or compassion shown to myself or Jamie. I felt traumatised by this experience and had many sleepless nights,” Miss Earth-England Abbey-Anne Gyles-Brown revealed in her CNN Philippines interview.
Pageants still have outdated ideals and traditions due to organizers that make sure these ideals never change.
Though these women were brave for speaking out, it only proves that the problem is the system itself and not with the women who compete in them. Pageants still have outdated ideals and traditions due to organizers that make sure these ideals never change.
Like what Dr. Mina Roces said: “Anything that gives women power, I think, we should rethink. And not dismiss.” But here’s the thing, whatever aspects of pageantry we see as progressive, it’s because of the progressive women competing in them.
Miss Spain competing in the Miss Universe this year spoke against transphobia in our society. Angela Ponce pushed the conversation of our world’s definition of womanhood. It’s a bold move to shatter our conception of what a woman should be.
“I don’t need to win Miss Universe. I only need to be here,” Angela Ponce said in the Top 20 tribute video played during the competition. “I always say: having a vagina didn’t transform me into a woman. I am a woman, already before birth, because my identity is here,” she told in an interview with Agence France-Presse, gesturing to her head afterward.
Womanhood has always been tied to the women who define themselves as such. And in a country like the Philippines, where most of its citizens remain transphobic, pivotal moments like these reveal our ignorance and misconceptions against the trans community. It starts a conversation that societies like ours need to have.
…whatever aspects of pageantry we see as progressive, it’s because of the progressive women competing in them.
Today, Catriona Gray won this year’s Miss Universe competition. Her win doesn’t only bring the nation pride and joy, she’s also one of the queens elevating pageantry beyond aestheticism, moving it forward to be used as a platform for bigger issues.
“We can really be beauty queens and set new standards to show that we are a new generation, that we really care about our country, that we care about what’s happening. We want to be voices to participate in the conversation that we should be having,” Catriona told Inquirer in a media press con last April.
“We are people with stories,” she added. “We’re women who want to excel in our fields, and we want to give back. That’s the rules laid out by pageantry (to be beautiful), but at least I am very proud to say that we’re a generation that’s bringing it further than that.”
Progressive, smart and talented individuals are what these pageant candidates are. We live in a male-dominated society. Whatever is deemed feminine is still at the grasp of the patriarchy. Makeup, fashion and of course, pageants.
What is not so feminist is the pageant competition themselves. There is no world where a woman’s beauty is judged through their proportions exhibits feminist ideals.
“But even as beauty pageantry is certainly empowering for those who succeed through its narrow path, its impact is mixed for the rest of us,” Gideon Lacson said in his Inquirer piece. “Our real challenge—one that goes beyond pageants and entails looking more broadly at our popular culture—is to build a society in which women can feel “confident with a heart,” regardless of their beauty.”
In this debate where pageants are feminist or not, the answer is most of the candidates are feminist or exhibit feminist ideals. Previous candidates like Miss Jamaica from Miss Universe 2014 spoke against violence against women, 2017’s Miss Canada shamed body shamers and 1977’s Miss Trinidad won Miss Universe and used her platform to be a Black rights advocate.
Olivia Jordan, who was Miss USA in 2015, is a “self-proclaimed feminist and body positive pageant contestant.” Our very own Catriona Gray addressed feminism in her “Bottomline” interview with Boy Abunda. “I think and I believe that the whole aim of feminism is to support women in whatever they choose to do as long as it’s considerate and respectful to someone else.”
She even proceeded to defend fellow candidate and Miss Spain Angela Ponce. She also weighed in on the “third restroom” law for transfolks. “I think this promotes inclusivity and allows them to understand what they want as a transgender and that is to be accepted by us, not just tolerated,” she said.
What is not so feminist is the pageant competition itself. There is no world where a woman’s beauty is judged through their proportions. But that’s why we can’t simply dismiss pageants as sexist alone. It has layers we cannot simply ignore.
“I think it’s unfair to oversimplify pageants as an event that prioritizes beauty and overlooks intelligence and accomplishments. A woman’s physical appearance coupled with her decision to actually enter a pageant should not make her less of an icon, because what’s so wrong about being empowered by beauty?” former Miss Australia Amanda Jacobson asked in her piece.
Reclaiming pageantry as a way to empower women is the most feminist act we can do in this post-#MeToo society. Are pageants the perfect platforms to bring these women’s advocacies to light? It’s not but it’s the platform they chose and that’s something we have to respect.
“It’s the rules set out by our arena, we’re beauty athletes, but it’s up to us to take it further,” Catriona told Inquirer in a media press con. If women like Catriona see themselves as beauty athletes, then let them be empowered by that, if it makes them happy.
Reclaiming pageantry as a way to empower women is the most feminist act we can do in this post-#MeToo society.
It’s time for pageantry to adjust with the times and the progressive women who compete in them. These queens are moving pageantry to a more progressive tomorrow. Queens like Catriona and Angela are pushing conversations and are trying to diminish certain harmful mindsets.
When will institutions like Miss Universe and pageants in general do the same?
Changing male-led institutions is a long shot for the realist and pessimist in all of us. But if there are women competing out there, trying to reclaim femininity and bringing their advocacies on the global platform given to them, then it is time for the platform itself to give these women what they deserve.
And that is progress and change.
Art by Marx Fidel