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positions: east asia cultures critique 14.3 (2006) 717-747

Beauty Queens:
Gender, Ethnicity, and Transnational Modernities at the Miss India USA Pageant
Bakirathi Mani

At the 1999 Miss India USA pageant, held in San Jose, California, more than six hundred people streamed into the ballroom of the five-star Fairmont Hotel. Billed in the pageant booklet as an event of "great social and cultural value" and as "the most glamorous Indian function in the country,"1 tickets to Miss India USA quickly sold out to a maximum capacity audience. Family and friends of the contestants, local businesspeople, community leaders, and pageant enthusiasts milled around their assigned tables and the cash bar, and the pageant commenced after an hour's delay. Stretching well past midnight, the eighteenth annual Miss India USA pageant was a five-hour-long extravaganza, constituted through appearances by the young female contestants for the crown as well as fashion shows, music and dance performances, a three-course dinner, and seemingly endless speeches by former beauty queens, local civic officials, and Indian American community leaders. Sponsored by the New York–based India Festival Committee, the Miss [End Page 717] India USA pageant is a gala event, the nationwide culmination of a series of state-level competitions such as the Miss India New York, Miss India Texas, and Miss India Georgia pageants. The winner of Miss India USA proceeds to represent the United States at the annual Miss India Worldwide competition; successful contestants have become actresses, television personalities, doctors, entrepreneurs, and homemakers. While beauty pageants follow a standard order of events—and in its format the Miss India USA pageant is very much like any other—I suggest that this particular event operates not only to determine who will win the title of Miss India USA but, equally important, to generate ideologies of community, citizenship, and nationhood in diaspora.

Beauty pageants are a singularly unique site in which to study the production and representation of culture and power. In a recent volume titled Beauty Queens on the Global Stage, the editors emphasize the ubiquity of beauty pageants at the international, national, and local community levels, drawing attention to the similarity in format, if not in content, of the pageants. Beauty pageants are "places where cultural meanings are produced, consumed, and rejected";2 at the same time, the pageants "showcase values, concepts, and behavior that exist at the center of a group's sense of itself and exhibit values of morality, gender, and place. . . . The beauty contest stage is where these identities and cultures can be . . . made public and visible."3 As Judy Wu notes, beauty pageants in the United States have historically also been used to stage the acculturation of Asian immigrant communities.4 At the Miss India USA pageant, I am particularly interested in examining how formations of ethnic identity are linked to discourses of transnational community. Rupal Oza has argued in her discussion of the 1996 Miss World contest in Bangalore that the beauty pageant is an "iconic" form of globalization, a site on which boundaries of the nation are reaffirmed and contested. In her view both nationalist and feminist protests against the Miss World pageant evoked "a fidelity to nation and place in response to globalization."5 My own reading of the 1999 Miss India USA pageant engages with Oza's attention to place and nation but also examines the transnational dimensions of locality engendered at the pageant in order to discuss three issues critical to understanding the formation of South Asian communities in diaspora. [End Page 718]

First, given the location of the 1999 Miss India USA pageant in San Jose, a city at the center of northern California's technology industry, I contend that the pageant engenders new narratives of South Asian immigration to the United States. The location of the beauty pageant at the virtual heart of Silicon Valley allows for pageant organizers to invoke stories of Indian American entrepreneurial success, eliding the historical and ongoing immigration of working-class...


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