I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of beauty pageants since class last Friday, trying to organize the thoughts I so artfully articulated at the end of class.
The group activity that we did in class last Wednesday brought to light that many of us can’t help but think negative, shallow things about beauty pageants and their contestants, at least initially. And why shouldn’t we? Pageants are basically a contest where women are judged solely on their looks (sure there is an question/answer session as well as a talent portion but have you ever seen an ugly Miss America?). In addition, as mentioned briefly by Lilly’s earlier post, we have shows such as Toddlers & Tiaras that give us a glimpse in the world of child beauty pageants. What merit is there in an institution that highly sexualizes and indoctrinates children—literally toddlers—with the idea that they need to adorn and embellish themselves in order to be considered beautiful and alternately worth something?
Maxine Leeds Craig’s article in particular made me think a lot about the pros and cons that exist in pageant history in context with race. Pageantry history is rich with examples of black women asserting their racial pride by creating and running their own pageants. On one hand, this is a positive example of black women owning and loving their beautiful selves. On the other hand, this practice still supports an organized system of oppressive beauty ideals that are put into place by a patriarchal society. As well, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, these pageants still supported the white dominated practice of such events. This doesn’t paint pageants in any better light.
Back to my thoughts from class on Friday. Reading Venus in the Dark, thinking about Sarah Baartman unwillingly on display, brought me back to pageants. The cartoon all about the gaze shows the power the object of such a gaze can have over the ‘gazers’. The woman in the cartoon, who shown looking up the Sarah-type figure’s skirt, is unknowingly subverting her own sexuality. Her gaze becomes masculine, as she sexualizes the figure in front of her, giving such a figure immense power. Maybe for adult women, women who are old enough to know the history and are aware of the context of pageants, who can make the informed decision to enter into pageants, such events can actually be a chance for them to own their beauty and have a sense of power. In juxtaposition with Sarah, contemporary women can give permission to put themselves on ‘display’. They are aware of the judging and ranking that happens. They are allowing viewers to gaze upon them, regaining the power such a gaze might have otherwise had.