Have Feminist Views of Beauty Pageants Changed?

The BBC has an articlewritten by Mary Beard, who is a writer and Professor of Classics at Cambridge and has been a feminist since the 60’s.   She writes about the 2011 Miss World beauty pageant recently held in London and how her views about it have changed since she was a “radical feminist teenager” in 1970.

From the 1971 Miss World Pageant (BBC)

She says that, at the 2011 pageant, a hundred or so feminist demonstrators turned up to object to what they saw as a “degrading human cattle market.”  But that was far different from the protests at the 1970 Miss World pageant, “when a group of ‘women’s libbers’ (as people used to call them then), swapped their dungarees for little frocks, infiltrated the ceremony, and managed to land some bags of flour very close to the compere Bob Hope, some wilting lettuces on the assembled reporters, and squirts of blue ink on the bouncers’ shirts.”  Beard says that the protestors slogan in 1970 was “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry.”

Beard watched the 2011 pageant on a streaming feed because it is no longer popular enough to be carried on live television.  She says that the pageant has “cleaned up its act” and mentions some of the improvements that cut down on the objectification of the women.  What I found most interesting was her comparison of the current version of the pageant that no longer draws enough viewers to put it on live TV, with the wildly popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent, where the Miss World pageant “isn’t, in other words, the licensed child abuse (or that’s what it looks like to me, at any rate) that we watch on Britain’s Got Talent, where there is no age limit at all – you could enter your toddler if you wanted to – and where to see a prematurely-sexualised 11-year-old reduced to tears, or a vulnerable middle-aged lady driven to despair, seems to have become part of the pleasure of the show.”

Beard found that “try as I might, I couldn’t any longer summon up much fury about the whole [pageant].”  She thinks that the demonstrators would think that she had “sold out on feminism,” but she disagrees and thinks that she is “as strong a feminist [now] as I was at 26.”  She believes that the reason for her change is that, as she sees changes in her own body, “the less I see my own body as a positive asset, the less I have wanted to interfere with what other women choose to do with theirs. If they want to parade in bikinis or shroud themselves in burkas, then so be it. I can see the pleasure in both.”

Beard correctly acknowledges that “how we present ourselves to the world is never a free choice,” but that how you “make those constraints work for you” is what really matters”:

To accuse them – as I used to do – of being the victims of social or commercial or religious control now seems to me to be a fairly cheap hit. How we present ourselves to the world is never a free choice. For both women and men dress is always the subject of social constraints.

The question is how you make those constraints work for you. Take women’s make-up for example. It can be the ultimate symbol of an oppressive culture that refuses to accept women’s faces as they really are; it can also be celebratory, joyous and fun.

So I’m not really sure that the Miss World competition – for all its slightly old-fashioned tackiness – is where we should be protesting.

I’m still not sure what I think about beauty pageants, even with the modifications that some of them have made.  But I certainly agree with Beard that there are many far-worse and far-more-encompassing examples of objectification of women than you will find at beauty pageants.