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Beauty Queens Behaving Badly: Gender, Global Competition, and the Making of Post-Refugee Neoliberal Vietnamese Subjects
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Beauty Queens Behaving Badly:
Gender, Global Competition, and the Making of Post-Refugee Neoliberal Vietnamese Subjects

Beauty pageants have received plenty of scholarly attention in the past two and a half decades, demonstrating through critical analyses and well-researched studies that these spectacular contests perform a number of cultural, social, and symbolic functions for any given local or national community.1 In her important contribution to this body of scholarship, Sarah Banet-Weiser keenly observes, "the Miss America pageant does not mean one thing to one audience. It is not merely about pageantry, or kitschy culture, or the objectification of women, or overt racism, or reactionary nationalism. It is about all these things and more."2 For these reasons it remains a valuable endeavor to analyze beauty pageants and their cultural meanings as they continue to tell stories about gender, power, and belonging. And while archetypical national and international competitions such as the Miss America and the Miss Universe pageants have attempted to incorporate multiculturalism by awarding racialized and ethnic women these titles, dominant discourses still privilege standards of beauty that do not deviate from codes of whiteness. In response beauty pageants organized by ethnic and marginalized communities have provided an alternative site of competition while simultaneously enabling those communities proudly to showcase ethnic pride and attempt to preserve some cultural lifeways. Many members of the Vietnamese diaspora believe that beauty pageants provide opportunities for young women to take on social roles as cultural bearers.3 But to what extent do these alternative beauty pageants actually challenge or subvert mainstream beauty contests when they are also premised on the public display of attractive, youthful, feminine bodies?

In this article I explore beauty contests of the post-refugee Vietnamese diaspora to demonstrate that the dual evolution of both the pageants and the community reflects the social and cultural concerns with which the community grapples. My research suggests that while these pageants continue to objectify women and their bodies, they also promote the commercialization of [End Page 25] ethnicity and women's participation in consumer culture in order to secure the Vietnamese diaspora's place in the global market. Specifically, I argue that beauty pageants display changing dynamics of gender, sexuality, and social class as they adopt strategies of acculturation and articulate cultural identity through conspicuous consumption and the female spectacle. Beauty pageants thus serve as a vehicle for promoting neoliberal values that celebrate the financial success and excessive wealth of an elite class of Vietnamese businesses that sponsor them while encouraging young women to embrace those same values.

Over a decade ago I published research detailing the cultural significance of beauty pageants to the Vietnamese refugee community between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s and explained how they worked ideologically to ease nostalgic anxieties about gender and the lost nation. Though at a much smaller, localized, and regional scale, the pageants prized young attractive females and assigned them cultural roles to perform figuratively and literally on their bodies in public spaces where sizeable Vietnamese communities had formed.4 Beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora, however, underwent dramatic transformations from the 1990s to the early 2000s. One considerable indicator of these changes is the removal of the Vietnamese language as a requirement. Although young women who mastered the Vietnamese language were prized for their ability to retain the most important strand of cultural knowledge, it became starkly apparent that by the late 1990s few possessed these language skills. And while it would be more practical to keep the Vietnamese language as a requirement, for it also served as the lingua franca for the diaspora, pageant organizers recognized the reality of assimilation, favored mass participation, and prioritized the commercial appeal of their pageants. The new language that the pageants adopted was the language of capital. Seizing upon the lucrative success of more established regional pageants, Vietnamese entrepreneurs worked with both ethnic and mainstream corporate entities that envisioned themselves as international or transnational companies to recruit young Vietnamese women from all over the United States and the diaspora to compete for larger titles with even more profitable prizes. Whereas previous pageant titles relied on the ao dai or "long...