Beverly J Stoeltje. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.
Displaying young unmarried women in a ritual competition, beauty pageants crown one of the contestants as queen. She might be Miss America or Miss Ghana, Miss Gay IU (actually a male competition), Miss Rodeo Idaho, or even Miss Penitenciária. Although fictional, the title carries rewards ranging from large sums of cash, flashy cars, and scholarships to the symbolic power of representing one’s community or nation and the pride inherent in being the one chosen above all the others. In all of its multiple variations, the beauty contest reflects the interests, purposes, values, and goals of the organizers and their perceived audiences. The majority of these values concern gender roles. In the social process of defining the ideal woman, queen contests often become the site of debates—particularly those concerning femininity and masculinity and the roles assigned to women and men. Consequently, the contests respond to pressures by incorporating changes. In some instances, however, differences may develop into major controversies and lead to unanticipated outcomes.
The Local and the Global
Classified as popular culture, beauty pageants are nevertheless viewed around the world as events that embody modernity and signify Western values. Consequently, every nation state that aspires to be modern holds a competition and forwards its winners to the annual television-mediated global competitions, Miss Universe and Miss World. Being represented on the global stage of national beauties and competing against world powers in a ritual performance of symbolic females creates the illusion of full participation in the global arena for those nation states that might otherwise be accorded second rank.
In addition to the national hierarchical stand-alone competitions culminating in the selection of the queen of the universe or the world, beauty contests are organized within events such as county or state fairs and rodeos, and by institutions, organizations, and industries. They also are produced as the expressions of identity for social groups and to recognize age groups, and to bring recognition and fundraising to churches and schools, businesses, and any socially organized unit that can be imagined. The power and money generated by these competitions accrues to the sponsors and participants as well as the winners; moreover, the event can be replicated with ease on a very small scale or a very grand one, and the subject (young women) is available as an infinite resource at no cost. This combination makes it possible for every variation of human organization to produce beauty contests and pageants.
Gender Roles and the Introduction of Change
The creation of gender roles is a dynamic process, negotiated among members of specific communities in response to historical and socioeconomic circumstances. Beauty contests bring this process into the public eye, revealing contradictions, conflicts, and changes as they are evolving. Tracking the modifications in the Miss America contest reveals a close parallel with changing gender issues in the larger culture. Major transformations have affected the pageant since it began in 1921 as the “Fall Frolic on the Boardwalk,” an attempt by Atlantic City to continue to draw crowds after the summer season. The swimsuit competition has been the most controversial and debated issue over the years, confusing “wholesomeness with sex appeal, creating a paradox that still exists,” as Angelina Saulino Osborne explains. As identified by Susan Powell, Miss America 1981, the platform concept forced a major change because the contestants then had to be willing to contribute time and energy to a worthwhile cause. An equally momentous change occurred with the introduction of scholarships (1945), supporting the contestants in the pursuit of higher education. The scholarships sent a different message and also attracted more serious contestants. Bess Myerson, a music major at Hunter College, entered because of the scholarship and became Miss America that year. She also was the first and only Jewish Miss America. It was not until 1983 that the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was chosen. When Heather Whitestone won the contest and became Miss America in 1995, she represented a new recognition of people with disabilities as she is deaf. In 2006 a reality show component was announced in the hope of boosting waning ratings.
Change in any contest results from negotiation. Not acknowledged as such, however, this cultural process elicits the ideas, values, and opinions of those involved in the production, or it may engage opinions expressed through media, protests, organizations, money, and other modes. With regard to the Miss America Pageant, this latter process became transparent when the CEO of the organization was fired in 1999. The action occurred just after the CEO and the Pageant Board had revoked the ban on divorce and abortion for contestants in order to comply with state laws against discrimination. In response, state pageant directors, former winners, and other traditionalists vehemently opposed the change, and the CEO was removed. This controversy reflects similar ones throughout the country around the turn of the twenty-first century as debates over women’s sexuality and reproductive rights, the female body, marriage, and the ideal woman have continued. In one instance, a crisis developed at a small midwestern university in 2000 when a queen was forced to give up her title because it was discovered that some years previously she had been raped, became pregnant, and then miscarried. Pageant rules in the United States generally stipulate an age group (late teens through early twenties), and a rule against marriage and pregnancy. (These rules were clarified for the Miss America Pageant in the early twenties after several married women with children entered.)
Perhaps no change has been as significant as the role of the sponsors, which expanded throughout the twentieth century. Sponsors are businesses and corporations that provide vast sums of money for the pageant and the queen, who then tours for and appears with the sponsors, adding her glamour to their products for the full year she wears the crown.
Competition and Representation
Beauty contests motivate both contestants and audiences through competition and representation. Young women compete against each other in a ritualized competition. The competition creates a system of signification in which women are expected to embody values that symbolize the ideal female. The contests constitute a secular ritual due to the repetition of their form and purpose, the enactment of social/gender relationships, and the transformation that occurs: one of the contestants is judged to be more ideal than the others and she is crowned the queen, receiving recognition, rewards, and responsibilities. The other contestants are also affected by the ritual: they appear before an audience in a variety of attire, participate in the competition, and submit to being judged.
Ritual often develops as a response when transition, ambiguity, or conflict threatens the status quo, especially the structure of social relations such as that between male and female. Distinctions between adult and child and between female and male are fundamental to all societies, and are generally established through rituals of initiation. As the competitions to select a queen function to define and distinguish females who have reached maturity and present them to the public, they function like initiation rites in modern societies, defining femininity and the ideal woman.
In beauty contests ritual links the individual to society through the process of sponsorship by a business or political unit such as a town, state, nation, or organization. The contestant then represents that entity and learns her role as the symbol of something other than herself. Obfuscated by the glitz and glamour of bodies, lights, and music, the flow of money through sponsorship links the ideal unmarried woman to the social relations of capitalism. In the beauty pageant economy funds are exchanged through: entry fees for the contestants; wardrobe, accoutrements, and travel; tickets for the public; and prizes awarded the winners. The selection process determines that a contestant must obtain the support of a sponsor (a business, a community, or another public entity). The sponsor then provides the entry fee and other expenses if the contest is a large one, and the name of the sponsor is indicated on the ribbon the contestant wears across her body.
One privately organized pageant in 1998 in a small but economically upscale town offered a contest with three segments: a swimsuit preliminary, an evening gown preliminary, and a final contest. Tickets were $20 for each event or $50 for all three, and the entry fee for contestants was $795.00. The contestants sought sponsors at the national and the local level. At a state level contest or a very large event, thousands of dollars will be necessary to support a queen candidate. Sixteen businesses were required to support the campaign of Miss Rodeo North Dakota in 2004, and many more sponsors were required to send her to the national competition.
Innovation and Variation
As twentieth-century immigrant groups have settled into the United States and become citizens, they have introduced innovation into the beauty contest paradigm. These groups have now established contests with the titles Miss Vietnam USA, Miss Ethiopia North America, Miss India USA, Miss Liberia USA, Miss Asian America, Miss Latina U.S., and Miss Haiti USA. These are not the first contests to recognize cultural identities, however. Native American groups have long produced a variation of the beauty contest. In a pan-Indian event considered to be the largest in the United States, the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, native women from all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America compete in a contest titled “Miss Indian World Pageant.” With a female mistress of ceremonies directing the pageant, the contestants compete on stage by performing traditional skills, dressed in native costumes. Young Native American women can also compete for the title of Miss National Congress of American Indians in a contest in which individual tribes send their representative princesses to perform both a traditional and a modern skill.
The queen contests that involve the majority of young women in the United States and other countries as well are those localized contests attached to the annual festival celebrated in almost every small town and suburb. Closely linked to the town and the festival, these queens have specialized names and are known to their audiences. At the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, the winner of the beauty contest receives the title “Miss Snake Charmer,” and is rewarded with the opportunity to handle a rattlesnake. In contrast to the annual events, some contests may be held in conjunction with a one-time special event. This was the case in Ghana, where organizers of the celebration to mark the forty-year anniversary of the creation of the Brong Ahafo region featured a beauty contest in 1999. The Anniversary Beauty Queen was awarded a trip to London, cash, and a television.
Yet another variation of the beauty contest, with quite a different focus on the body, are the bodybuilders’ contests. In a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century phenomenon, both females and males engaged in building muscular bodies compete in contests that display them for the public. However, females in these contests develop massive physiques that are not consistent with the viewing public’s concept of femininity, confusing it with masculinity. Consequently, bodybuilding shows added two other sporting events in the mid-nineties: Ms. Fitness (showcasing athletic women softer than their bodybuilding counterparts who perform routines in stiletto heels) and Ms. Figure (in which contestants are not bodybuilders but have good muscle tone and also wear stiletto heels).
Whatever purpose they claim to serve, beauty contests address the question of gender with seriousness. For gay men, who do not conform to the heterosexual model of female and male, the beauty contest provides an excellent opportunity to challenge assumptions about sexuality and satirize sanctioned gender roles. Defining themselves as women and producing the event, the participants in a gay beauty contest perform lip synch to recordings of female singers, give themselves female names, and include an evening gown competition, modeled on the mainstream contests. Paralleling the Miss America contest, gay men produce the Miss’d America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, on the night following the original pageant. While the performance is a satire, it takes its fundraising seriously and raises thousands of dollars annually for AIDS programs. Also familiar is the annual New York City contest featured in the award-winning documentary Paris is Burning (1990), in which the costumes reflect the dreams and hopes of the participants. University campuses and gay bars are also sites of gay male contests. At Indiana University in Bloomington, the contest is titled Miss Gay IU and attracts straight as well as gay audience members, female as well as male. Like similar events, in 2006 this one emphasized awareness of AIDS and donated the considerable contribution from the audience to Youth AIDS, an organization dedicated to educating youth about AIDS. In the Southern Philippines a very different system of signification applies, given that transvestite men have traditionally played a role of ritual specialist and performer. There, gay men combine the cultural concept of bantut (referring to a long established tradition of performers in the Muslim Tausug and Sama communities in the Philippines who are designated with the term bantut who are considered to be men who act like women) with the contemporary concept gay, and perform in “international” contests in which they dress in the costume of nations and ethnicities. In the Philippines as elsewhere, transvestite performances challenge hetereosexual concepts of gender, both masculine and feminine, reversing and rearranging them on stage.
Debate and Controversy
Debate and controversy have followed beauty contests since P.T. Barnum proposed them in the nineteenth century. Depending on the site of the contest, the scale, and the system of signification in place, debate may be expressed on the local level. But in instances where the event is large scale, as it was in India when the Miss World pageant was held there in 1996, the controversy was nationwide and became international news. Protests were staged by conservative religious groups, political parties, feminist activists, student groups, and secular intellectuals, but the global contest went forward in the city of Bangalore and state of Karnataka. In São Paulo, Brazil, where 603 female inmates from ten prisons competed in the Miss Penitenciária pageant in 2005, some individuals felt the prisoners were being glorified instead of punished (Prada 2005). In Nigeria, the Miss World global contest set off political and religious debates in 2002 when it was scheduled during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Riots were triggered when a newspaper article claimed that the Prophet would have chosen some of the beauties for wives. Coinciding with the contest was the sentencing of a young mother to death by stoning for adultery by an extremely conservative Islamic court. Though ultimately she was not killed, others died during the ensuing riots. Even in war zones beauty contests are adapted to local circumstances. The first contest to select the Beauty of Chechnya in 2006 was held amidst controversy after Muslim clerics gave their approval, and the swimsuit competition was ruled out.
Riddled with contradictions and a subject of considerable controversy, the first recorded children’s contest was a P.T. Barnum baby show in 1855, attended by 61,000 patrons. Children’s beauty contests are common in small towns and suburbs and often take place in shopping malls in the midst of an ordinary weekend. Some locations include all ages, beginning with a division for babies that will include boy babies as well as girls. The next two divisions only have females (six to nine years, and ten to thirteen years). In small towns parents may organize these events, but entrepreneurs have also developed them as profit-making ventures, capitalizing on young parents’ eagerness to gain recognition for their small children, as well as the photographs that are often associated with the process. In either case, very young children are often made up with lipstick and mascara, in an attempt to give the appearance of mature young women as they stroll down the runway, eliciting praise from some parents and adjectives like “disturbing” from others. Children’s and girls’ pageants differ in this regard from the first half of the twentieth century when contests were often held, but no attempt was made to portray children as adults.
The most significant debates in Europe and North America center around issues raised by the feminist movement, religious groups, and others, who have objected to the display of the female body, often comparing it to a cattle auction. These criticisms forced changes in the Miss America pageant, shifting the focus from the measurements of a woman’s body to the contestants’ abilities to think and to speak, and the swimsuit competition was removed for several years, though it has since been reincorporated. In 1997 the Miss America Organization issued a list of word substitutions in an attempt to improve the image of the event, which was losing popularity, proposing “scholarship program” in place of “beauty contest.” Again in 2001 it attempted a major overhaul, labeling the swimsuit competition as the “Lifestyle and Fitness” event. These changes have succeeded in attracting serious young women as contestants, many of whom have become doctors or media stars or performers. In the 2007 talent contest, even opera was to be featured (the winner of Miss Indiana 2006 was a music student). Not the first talent competition to feature classical music, Bess Myerson, also a music major, performed Gershwin and Grieg in 1945 when she won the crown and the first scholarship ($5,000).
In spite of these language changes and success in attracting serious and talented young women, the focus remains on the body, indicated by the fact that some contestants have undergone cosmetic surgery, although this is not openly debated. Once again, the contest reflects a practice from the larger society.
Because cultures differ in their definitions of gender and how values are assigned, and the same culture can change these values and definitions, a beauty pageant must be considered in view of the social and historical context in which it occurs. The meaning it is assigned, the debates it generates, and the outcomes it produces will be determined by the hierarchy of values in place in the culture. Thus the meaning of a beauty pageant can only be understood within the system of signification in the culture where it has been produced. In the United States in the early twenty-first century, opposing views on femininity and the role of women are struggling to establish dominance, and these are debated in and through beauty pageants.