No Mr Sunderland Then? Oh.

// 27 May 2009

Tags: , , , , ,

It seems that beauty pageants are back. Until relatively recently, they appeared to me to be consigned to the history books: a quaint and ludicrous reminder of a time when being pretty and coming across as a sweet, nice person were considered the most important attributes a woman could possess and the display of such qualities was even showcased in a ritual that resembled a kind of spectator sport. Indeed, I remember there being a very low response to the yearly call-out for Carnival Queen in the town I used to live, with most girls scoffing with disdain at the idea of partaking in something so old-fashioned. Clamouring to be crowned the prettiest girl in town? Not cool.

It seemed so over to me that it was almost charmingly retro and camp.

That feeling continued and was partly why -even relatively recently– I took the view that there was no problem with “Miss World” style competitions popping up every once in a while. I figured if some people want to use their looks (and obviously what can be considered attractive is subjective anyway), that’s okay.

In principle, I still think that. Or, rather, I would in an ideal world. The trouble is that not only are we living in a time where looks are arguably oppressively important for everyone (just look at how conventionally attractive children’s TV presenters are at the moment) but we still don’t have an equal playing field in terms of turn-taking when it comes to which gender is framed, and thereby facilitated, as generally doing the looking and which one gets to be objectified. That’s why I was pleased to recently get an opportunity to take part in a BBC Radio Newcastle discussion (scroll to an hour and 53 minutes into the programme) with the organiser and co-host of Miss Sunderland, Simon Robertson.

I still maintain that a little bit of objectification (provided the definition allows some level of mutability) isn’t harmful and that, just as we women absolutely need to pull away from being swallowed up by it, men will benefit from being genuinely cherished in such a way more regularly. However, it seems that current fashion is intent on keeping the sexes in their places and, unfortunately, I think that’s why we’re seeing a resurgence of beauty contests. As Catherine recently indicated, even women who are successful and in the public eye for something that has nothing to do with their looks are under pressure to be seen as sexy but men are generally more likely to be shown looking rough and thereby allowed to just let their specialisms shine through. Overall, our culture is saturated with messages that being pretty is still top of the list of important attributes for a woman. Sadly, it seems to be the case that we are “sleazed over while we are young and pretty”, “ignored if we are old or unattractive” and “told we are ugly and jealous when we question this.”

As far as I can tell from a quick look around on the web, it isn’t as if the equivalent contests for men are doing anything to challenge gender stereotypes. We’ve got “Mr Gay UK” (good in some ways but doesn’t exactly go towards busting the stereotypical idea that women “aren’t as visually stimulated”). “Mr Universe” appears to, as ever, be focussed on bodybuilding. “Mr World” is described as “a three week festival of physical endurance and dynamic entertainment” and “a competition of strength, stamina, camaraderie and personal style.” Mr World contestants are “leaders”, “men of dignity”, “caring and conscientious” and “ambassadors of good will”. The words “beauty pageant” are not mentioned. Meanwhile, the rules for “Miss World” contestants are that they must be childless, unmarried and no older than 24. The current Mr World is 26.

And yet, despite this, there still seems to be an impression, for some, that all is equal. As Alfie Joey, one of the presenters of the show on BBC Radio Newcastle, asked in his closing comment on the feature: “Are you a feminist who feels affronted or, girls, do you like a good ogle?” I realise this was probably just a light throwaway remark to get people texting in and I guess he could have been asking the question in the given context (i.e do we like looking at pretty women?) but something about that comment jarred a little for me. Was Alfie fleetingly referring to an increasing (but overdue and still inadequate) general acceptance that women can be visually stimulated too and are not just completely passive? If so, I couldn’t help wondering if he was, in turn, using this as some kind of excuse for continuing to uphold a culture that usually frames women as the ones being looked at; a gentle “Don’t be hypocrites now, girls!”

Excuse me but did I miss something? Maybe an array of lovely men in a beauty pageant in a town near me, donning charming outfits for the audience’s pleasure and delight?

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 28 May 2009 at 10:24 am

Equality? What equality. When we have male beauty pageants wherein men are paraded in tight skimpy panties all avidly declaring they are ‘nurturing, caring and only want to do good,’ then I will believe equality has arrrived. Now before anyone claims ‘you hate beautiful women’ – since when is it ’empowering’ to reduce all women to a narrow male-centered definition, wherein a narrow definition of beauty supposedly supercedes intelligence and diversity. Beauty does not last because we all age but men not women are allowed to age and men not women are portrayed as diverse individuals wherein intelligence and diversity are far more important than whether or not a middle-aged man is overweight. The fact is increasing numbers of women and girls are monitoring their appearance and bodies because of the internalised ‘male gaze.’ Propaganda is very subtle but very effective because if we are constantly shown a computer enhanced image of what women are supposed to look like then eventually this will be internalised by many women and girls.

As it is the rise of female beauty pageants is on a continuum with the backlash against women achieving a tiny amount of rights. Time and again whenever women gain a smidgen of their rights there is a huge backlash and it is all about putting women firmly back in their place – as inferiors to men.

Claims beauty pageants are empowering to women etc etc. are false promises but when it is constantly promoted and any meaningful critiques are either silenced or else the writer/speaker is subjected to misogynistic claims they are women-haters or else sexually insulted, then it is not surprising so many women and girls accept these misogynistic beliefs concerning the female body.

Mr. Universe too, reinforces the narrow masculine definition wherein supposedly to be a man means having over developed muscles, shows physical endurance and of course demonstrates that over-used word ‘courage.’ As if all men are a one-size fits all – but this is what the backlash is about – claiming women and men are from different planets with women’s and girls’ sole role to provide ‘eye candy’ for men and boys.

I wonder when Alfie Joey is going to enter a male beauty pageant so that we women can rightly engage in visually ‘eyeing the men.’ But commonly viewing men as ‘sexualised objects’ is forbidden – because men unlike women are not turned into dehumanised sexualised objects. Men, unlike women retain their agency and subjectivity. Take a look at how male models in mainstream advertising are posed. They do not engage in sexually submissive poses, neither do they have the sexually submissive pout. Women however are constantly represented as sexually submissive and of course ‘sexually available to men.’

Neither must we forget that capitalism is now the bedfellow of patriarchy and what better way of making huge profits than by having beauty pageants all with the tag-line ‘because you’re worth it’ or claims ‘it is empowering to women.’

Not forgetting too how popular science is constantly used to reinforce the claim ‘biology is destiny.’ Women and girls love any colour as long as it is pink, plus apparently women’s brains are totally different to men’s brains. During the 19th century it was women’s reproductive system which was used to claim ‘women are feeble’ now it is brains which are supposedly divided into either feminine or masculine. Same old story which is simply repackaged and sold as ‘science.’

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds