- Figures of Beauty, Figures of Nation: Global Contests of Femininity
The feminist protest against the 1968 Miss America pageant is often recognized as a key event in heralding the second wave feminist movement in the United States, but, until very recently, beauty pageants have received scant attention from anthropologists, cultural scholars, or even feminists. Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power, edited by Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, makes a significant contribution toward remedying the dearth of scholarship in this area. The thirteen essays in this collection examine a wide geographical and cultural array of pageants, ranging from Beverly Stoeltje’s account of the Snake Charmer Queen pageant held at the Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, Texas; to Mark Johnson’s analysis of transvestite beauty pageants in the Phillipines; to Carole McGranahan’s discussion of the various nationalist claims on the Miss Tibet title. Every essay in the collection to some degree deals with the role of the beauty pageant in navigating and negotiating complicated debates and struggles over national and local identity.
Beauty Queens on the Global Stage offers a great deal of original material and contributes to the ongoing interdisciplinary project of recognizing and examining popular festivals, performances and other forms of [End Page 166] public culture as important events in the construction of personal, political and cultural identities. The authors draw on the work of anthropologists, cultural scholars, and some feminists, and focus much attention on various cultural notions of beauty and femininity that determine the selection of queens. Through their consideration of beauty pageants as key sites for formulating and challenging national and local identities, the editors promise to “take pageants seriously,” thus avoiding what they regard as the academic trap of understanding and interpreting beauty pageants as “somehow trivial, frivolous, or vulgar.” Instead, they convincingly claim that pageants, much like all forms of popular culture, are complicated statements that have a great deal to say about structures of power, performances of gender, affirmations of local and global identity, and perhaps most compelling, configurations of nationalism.
The cultural complexities that both surround and construct beauty pageants are often overlooked by scholars perhaps because of their seemingly opaque presentation of idealized feminine bodies. However, although there is the illusion of something self-evident about all beauty pageants’ claim on national feminine identity (after all, the titles of the queens selected—“Miss America,” “Miss Tibet,” or “La Cordobesa”—encompass both a gendered and a nationalist hold on representation), the nationalism that is simultaneously invented and reflected within the beauty pageant incorporates more than the grandiose title of the winner. The beauty pageant, in fact, represents a more complicated arrangement of claims and is the embodiment of a variety of nationalist expressions: it is a civic ritual, a place where a particular public can tell stories to “themselves about themselves”; it is often a mass mediated spectacle, firmly embedded within commodity culture, in a historical moment where so many forms of social participation and social meaning are determined by a continuous interplay between representation and consumption. 1 And, as the authors in this collection point out, it is also a highly visible performance of gender, where the disciplinary practices that construct women as feminine are palpable, on display, and usually positioned as unproblematically desirable.
Moreover, as the contributors in Beauty Queens on the Global Stage argue, pageants are profoundly political arenas, in the sense that the presentation and reinvention of femininity that takes place on the beauty pageant stage results in the production of political subjects. This can be seen perhaps most clearly in international contests which attempt to claim a place in either the Miss Universe or the Miss World pageants. As many of [End Page 167] the authors discuss, in the context of the world cultural economy, “resolving” nationalist tensions through the representation of the female body is about securing a place in the “family of nations” that comprises an international community. And, for several...