Prison pageant wows Bogota

// 11 February 2006

Beauty pageants have been a feminist bete noir for so long now, I was literally amazed that anyone could call one “liberating”. But this is no ordinary pageant: it takes place inside a Colombian jail and the contestents are “contract killers, Marxist rebels, smugglers, thieves”.

Nerve is hosting a stunning photoessay on “The Miss Prisoner Pageant” in Bogota’s Buen Pastor (Good Shepard) prison.

It’s hard to complain about this beauty contest, when you see the grinning faces of contestents and prisoners watching the show. Colombian prisons are grim. A beauty pageant is harmless fun.

But, it’s not so hard to complain about how it has been presented by Nerve or unpick some of the difficult contradictions. The reporter, Ada Calhoun, detects a look of “liberated glee” in the contestents eyes – then steps back to assure us (of the winner, drug trafficker Yury Uribe) “She’s clearly as dangerous as she is pretty. Good thing it’s hard to run far in a slinky dress and four inch heels.”

When the immobilising nature of high heels is usually mentioned, it’s to draw attention to their use in ordinary life and how society and personal choice comes together to restrict women’s movements on a literal and symbolic plane. But in this case, we have no compunction about that: Uribe is, after all, in jail. But doesn’t it illustrate perfectly how that slinky-dress and heels combo works in the real world?

There’s a surreal glamour to these photos as well: Calhoun, and all those TV cameras in that jail-cell make-up parlour, are turning these prisoners into Bond girls. A million miles away from the Home Secretary’s plans to use prisoners to build the Olympic village. All in all, a very thought-provoking set of images.

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