The much-contested debate about whether beauty pageants are pro-woman has permeated western culture for decades. The recent announcement of Miss USA 2013 winner, Miss Erin Brady of Connecticut, once again spurred activists and supporters into sharing their views and opinions regarding the pageant.
Are beauty pageants a platform to display women’s bodies or to assess how intelligent these beautiful women can be? One of the contestants, Miss Marissa Powell of Utah, found herself stumbling over a question about income inequality.
The question: "A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?"
Linda Holmes, NPR Writer, blogs about Miss Powell’s embarrassing response by pointing out that the question was poorly constructed and the stammering response is not an accurate indication of Miss Powell’s intelligence.
This leads to broader discussions concerning the types of questions appropriate for beauty pageant contestants and whether judges like Christina Milian, singer and actress, or Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, are suitable evaluators for beauty pageants.
Women’s rights activists have fought the good fight in attempting to eradicate the concept of beauty pageants in our culture by asserting that the contestants are simply used as commodified agents for commercial purposes. During the 1968 Miss America pageant, feminists took a stand that inspired the recreational burning of bras.
According to Time magazine, “400 women showed up to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., … [with] chants of 'Ain't she sweet, makin' profit off her meat,' the crowning of a live sheep on the boardwalk and the mass dumping of aprons, dust mops, cosmetics and bras into a Freedom trash can.”
Despite these revolutionary gestures, women continue to willingly parade their bodies in adherence to a rating system commercializing the female body.
Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist, has argued “the body is a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced through the concrete language of the body.”
It is recognized that participation is voluntary, and many women report feelings of empowerment. During the question section of Miss USA 2013, Miss Ali Nugent of Texas responds to a question regarding the banning of beauty pageant bikinis by religious groups. Given Nugent competed in a bikini at Miss USA 2013, she was asked if these groups should have such influence.
“I think we live in a country where we have freedoms that people around the world don’t,” Nugent said. “I personally am very confident with myself, and I feel perfectly fine being up here in front of millions of people in a swimsuit.”
Ultimately, both sides want the pageant contestants to be respected. Given the current operation of beauty pageants with celebrity judges and abstruse questioning we will continue to fuel an ageless battle.