Term Paper: Gender and Power in Beauty Pageant Culture

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Gender and Power in Beauty Pageant Culture

Review of the Relevant Literature.

How Beauty Pageants Define Gender, Hierarchy and Power. According to Poran (2002), the majority of research on beauty to date has focused on gender differences in the experience of physical attractiveness. "The beauty standard," she says, "holds much more importance for women than for men" (p. 65). The manner in which beauty pageants have historically defined gender and develop the organizational structures that reflect who is in charge has not been so matter of which competition was involved, but rather the historical setting within which such pageants were held. According to Rachel Cooke (2004), "Beauty contests, once the epitome of glamour, have been driven out by feminism and the tabloids. But the fake tans, smiles and swimsuits seem almost innocent in today's world of Botox, breast implants and trout pouts" (p. 38). While early pageant winners were regarded as the epitome of femininity by their peers and males alike, after World War II things definitely changed as millions of Rosies stopped riveting and returned to the American household, wiser for their experiences in the workplace and having earned a salary, and less willing to accept such male-imposed and artificial versions of female beauty.

According to Karen Hutchings:

The warped ideal of an eternal beauty led to a conflict of interest for most women as housework and childcare were not compatible with high fashion and glamorous hair and make-up. A Weekly reader wondered if the emphasis on the magic statistics '34-24-34' and all the publicity and prizes given to models could be good for teenagers aspiring to be successful wives and mothers: 'Does all this make the winner a nicer, sweeter girl, or does it give her vanity and a wrong sense of value? Let's have competitions to find the best cook or needlewoman, and forget for a while the eternal 34-24-34.' (2000, p. 45)

Despite these growing resentments to a male-imposed version of femininity, though, women in America are influenced by a wide range of powerful cultural messages that serve to define unrealistic expectations about what women should look like and how they should act (Lauze & Dozier, 2002). These artificial standards of beauty are not easily ignored; for instance, American women had 10 times as many plastic surgeries in 1998 than men (Kalb, 1999).

Miss America. A study by Jeremy Freese and Sheri Meland (2002) investigated the relationship between waist-to-hip ratios and what American males perceive as sexually attractive features in women. This study was in response to what appeared to be an emerging "academic urban legend" (Tooby & Cosmides, 2000) concerning the stability and precision of exactly what American heterosexual males find sexually attractive in women. "The academic urban legend in question is that there has been a remarkable consistency in the waist-to-hip ratios (WHR) of both Playboy centerfolds and winners of the Miss America pageant" (Freese & Meland, 2002, p. 133). As these contestants are considered to be representative of those beauty standards that are almost universally accepted, this consistency in desirable physical attributes has been accepted as reflecting this very specific preference.

Data for the winners of the Miss America competition from 1921 to 1986 (when the pageant stopped collecting the data) were analyzed by Freese and Meland; these researchers found that simple correlations between WHR and a linear measure of the time of pageant victory show that the WHRs of Miss American winners have changed over time. "The correlation coefficients indicate that the WHR Miss America winners have decreased over time (r =.-55, p <.001) and those of Playboy centerfold models have increased over time (r =.46, p <.001)" (Freese & Meland, 2002, p. 135). On the one hand, the authors say these results could reasonably be assumed to mean that this is evidence of an invariance in the underlying preference over time; the opposing trends, while important, could merely reflect idiosyncrasies of employing self-reported Playboy and Miss America measurements as measures of indicators of American male preferences for specific gender characteristics in the opposite sex at a given point in time. "In other words," they say, "because the trends are in opposite directions, they can be thought of as canceling each other out, allowing the conclusion that reflected WHR preferences have effectively been temporally invariant despite evidence of change in both samples" (Freese & Meland, 2002, p. 136).

Miss Universe. The first Miss Universe competition was announced in 1951 and the early competitions continued to reflect the social conditions of the day until the 1970s, when the pageant began to experience the backlash from the same women's rights advocates who were demonstrating against the other beauty contest around the world (Cavendish, 2001). Like the other pageants, the Miss Universe has been the source of much controversy over the years, but the fact remains this competition represents one of the most preeminent of the circuit and the winners of this contest can be reasonably assumed to reflect an idealized version of femininity of the day. One of the latest winners of the competition was Miss India, Lara Dutta, who was crowned Miss Universe 2000. According to "The Beauty Business" (2000), "While the Miss Australia contest has been abandoned after protests by feminist activists, India continues to revere its beauty pageant contestants -- and they can be well rewarded" (p. 36). This revised version of gender is reflected in how the winners of the competition achieved their victories, and what they intend to do following their reign. At a press conference, reporters bluntly asked Dutta: "How much money have you made?," to which she answered with diplomacy, demonstrating one of the qualities that helped her win the Miss Universe title: "Even I haven't seen the hard cash you're referring to," Dutta said. "What I've really gained following this honour is the number of opportunities that have opened up for me. I have a platform from which I can spread awareness about AIDS, juvenile AIDS and the dangers of HIV to such a huge population given the lack of enough awareness and precautions..." and, she added: "I couldn't have achieved what I have without the blessing of our one billion people." Dutta said she would continue to espouse the AIDS cause long after her one-year tenure as Miss Universe ended.

Finally, Dutta points out that she most likely won the competition in 2000 because of her communication skills rather than her looks: "I probably won the crown because of communicating effectively. In the first few days of the contest, everybody was rooting for Miss Spain, because she was so beautiful. My last answer at the contest won me the crown" (the Beauty Business, 2000, p. 37). Dutta reported that she intended to pursue a career in journalism and a documentary maker, and said she was opposed to adolescent girls who aspired to be beauty contestants because "they might feel insecure competing with other youngsters and that feeling should not enter their mind so early" (p. 38). Jutta also noted that her favorite social interests are women's empowerment, women's reproductive rights, gender equality, sex education and politics (the Beauty Business, 2000). This victory by an Indian contestant is just one of a sting of wins for the country in the international beauty contest circuit: "India's dominance in the beauty circuit is evident in the four Miss World titles and two Miss Universe crowns that its women have captured in the last six years. Twice -- in 1994 and 2000 -- Indian women held both the Miss World and Miss Universe tides simultaneously" (Malholtra, 2001, p. 33). The victories were a source of intense national pride and self-congratulation throughout the country. The ordinarily reserved Times of India described India as a "beauty superpower," and Member of Parliament Pramod Mahajan said that India's recent victories confirmed the nation's lead in world beauty. Clearly, though, the gender aspects of beauty have transcended the pageant's early beginnings to become a source of international influence and prestige. For instance, the British newspaper the Independent quoted an English software designer who suggested that "by winning, Yukta [Mookhey, Miss World 1999] has played a vital role in furthering India's presence in the world" (Malholtra, 2001, p. 33).

Miss World. The origins of the Miss World Pageant can be traced to its beginnings as the Miss Great Britain competition. Cooke reports that in 1945, the local council and the Sunday Dispatch launched an event to identify the resort's Bathing Beauty Queen ("first prize: seven guineas and a fruit basket") (Cooke, 2004, p. 39). This early pageant resulted in a competition that ran annually for several decades and was ultimately renamed Miss World in 1951 (Cavendish, 2004). The Great Miss Britain pageant was the invention of Eric Morley, a self-made entertainment entrepreneur who was approached with a suggestion for an international bathing beauty competition. The first competition was the only one planned, but it proved so popular that the following year, when the Miss Universe contest was announced in the United States, Morley "was piqued… [END OF PREVIEW]

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