Term Paper: Sex and Beauty Queen Contests

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¶ … national beauty contests emerge in America and Australia among other nations) in the 1920s and why had they declined in popularity by the 1980s?

ABC has dropped Miss America, leaving the famous beauty pageant without a TV outlet for the first time in 50 years... The move, which comes after the Sept. 18 pageant drew a record low 9.8 million viewers, could jeopardize the foundation of a program that grew from an Atlantic City publicity stunt into a highly rated TV staple.

The withdrawal of U.S. network television from the Miss America pageant marks a new low in the steady decline of a once great institution: the national beauty contest. From being shared communal events that embodied the hopes and dreams of a sizeable section of their populations and played a role as flag-waving occasions of national pride, events such as Miss America have become just one part of the fragmented multimedia world that is entertainment today, and a distinctly tawdry and unfashionable one at that. The same story of marginalization revealed by ABC's withdrawal from Miss America is repeated across the world, with national contests no longer shared national events.

When the national beauty contest began in the 1920s the cultural context was a very different one. Historians of women's "progress" in the 1920s have presented women "as flappers, more concerned with clothing and sex than with politics. Women had by choice, the accounts suggested, rejected political emancipation and found sexual freedom." The rise of the beauty contest can be read as one symptom of this, but it can also be seen as an expression, albeit a paradoxical one, of women's striving to find freer expression for their own agendas and identities.

In hindsight, it can be argued that the rise of beauty contests reflected ideals of modernity in inter-war society as expressed in both notions of the feminine physical ideal and the right of women to the public display of their bodies. Judith Smart observes that "young women of the postwar years were quite certain that they embodied modernity in a literal as well as figurative sense" in pursuing a notion of physical beauty derived from fashion and film of the 1920s, and were prepared to assert "precisely the sexual presence that feminists saw as dangerous, disempowering and debasing." By aligning themselves with "the claims of commodified beauty culture" women accepted the notion "that comparing oneself and measuring up to an ideal of feminine beauty through diligent self-scrutiny were indispensable techniques in the quest to become a truly modern woman."

Beauty contests were not inventions of the 1920s, but were rooted in long-established communal celebrations, as Judith Smart comments:

The central part given to women served a range of symbolic and allegorical functions on these occasions -- fertility, moral guardianship, maternalism, political principle, selfless idealism... For all the nineteenth-century prohibitions on women displaying themselves in public, this highly ritualised, idealised and decorous use of the female form precluded protest. But extension of commercial values and photographic technology into the wider culture towards the end of the nineteenth century brought new versions of the Queen contest that directly challenged this limited acceptance of public display.

The new communication technologies and commercial developments of the early twentieth century - film, photography, the mass circulation press, mass fashion - united with a loosening of public moral consensus and an assertiveness on the part of women to bring about a marked change in the character of the beauty pageant or contest in countries such as America and Australia. The technology of modernity was essential to the operation of the beauty contests and their location in the contemporary mass media; as Liz Conor notes, such contests "could not have taken place without the by now commonplace photographic portrait" and a "linkage to the screen star" which related the types of beauty that were categorized as acceptable in newspaper-run and other contests. The rise of public bathing and developments in fashion and swimwear that revealed and flattered, rather than concealed and disguised, the body also contributed to a climate in which the beauty contest could flourish.

In its hey-day, the beauty contest could achieve an appeal which went beyond the merely sexual or even glamorous, to symbolize ideas of community and nationhood. Both the Miss America and the Miss Australia contests had a significance in terms of national identity, drawing on long-established traditions of the symbolization of nationhood in female form (for example Britannia, Marianne). The organizers of Miss Australia sought to create "a modern feminine symbol of the nation" and in doing so made clear the forms of womanhood that were acceptable as representative of Australian identity: young, white, western, accepting of social norms, conforming to a defined physical type. The same applied to Miss America, who throughout the contest's history has been required to conform to a particular notion of symbolic American femininity. In fairness it must be pointed out that that notion has developed over the years as American society has changed - the gradual acceptance of black contestants (and the concurrent decline in the parallel industry of black-only beauty contests that developed from the 1930s) - being perhaps the most notable example, along with the growing emphasis on "character" and education as well as physical appearance that has characterized Miss America in recent years. Physical appearance remains the single most important characteristic, however, and the fundamental bars on participation in Miss America remain age, disability, and the possession of a body type that does not accord with what the competition prescribes as the norm. The cleft stick in which the beauty contest will always find itself, however much it tries to update itself for changing times, is neatly illustrated by a report on the 2004 Miss American pageant which featured very skimpy swimsuits (reflecting the organizers' new sponsorship agreement with Speedo):

The pretty young women battling to become Miss America may have college degrees, artistic talent, and high-minded ideals - but they're also showing more skin than ever before... while TV viewers have grown accustomed to hearing how each contender would like to change the world by eliminating world hunger or illiteracy, the "good looks" of this year's contestants will be on greater display than ever... The one-piece or two-piece suits, worn as bikinis by most competitors, leave little to the imagination and have caused some unease among the contestants, most of whom are aged between 22 and 24.

The modern beauty contest cannot lay claim to the universal, even moral mission of its predecessors of the period 1920s to the 1950s. The rise of feminism and the profound changes in society, from the structure of the family to the nature of the workplace, have undermined its position too extensively.

The beauty pageants were always open to the charge of encouraging lax morals or being associated with a decline in the standards of propriety. In the case of the Miss Australia contest, measures were taken to protect the contestants' "moral character" through such requirements as the provision of chaperones and the presence of female doctors at the competitions, and to put forward an image of respectability and "clean fun" - in contrast to the Miss America contest, which collapsed under a hail of criticism over its seedy nature in 1928 and was not revived until 1935, when a strict new code of conduct was imposed.

It is easy to take a critical view of beauty contests, seeing them as imposing male value-judgments and definitions of femininity on their participants and subjecting them to a form of ritualized dehumanizing display - and there is an important element of truth in such criticisms. That is not the whole story, however; women are not simply passive subjects of such events: "To assume that they were merely victims of false consciousness, or unthinking pawns manipulated by 'forces of patriarchy', robs these women of their imaginative agency and effaces the legitimacy of their interpretations, experiences and life goals." The contestants in such competitions did get something from it, and this should be recognized.

For the contestants, beauty quests were another route to civic visibility. They enabled attractive young women to take advantage of other people's desire to consume beauty, as with any other commodity. Rather than seeing themselves as exploited by commercial interests, they felt empowered by the value they attained as desired items of consumption and sponsorship, and, even more importantly, since they had been denied recognition for so long, as public representatives of the nation. But this could only occur if beauty itself was defined, regulated, disciplined and desexualised.

It was in that "regulation" and "disciplining" of the ideal of physical attractiveness that the main appeal, and the main long-term weakness, of the beauty contest lay.

The period from the 1950s onwards was characterized by a decline in the prestige and appeal of the beauty contest, but the picture was not simply one of decline. The "Miss Showgirl" competitions associated with agricultural exhibitions in rural Australia continued to flourish, becoming more… [END OF PREVIEW]

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