- Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants
Rebecca Chiyoko King-O'Riain's Pure Beauty has added to the growing scholarship in Asian American studies that pays attention to beauty pageants as an important site, where ethnic culture and nationalism could be articulated.1 King-O'Riain makes an important contribution to the field by using Japanese American beauty pageants as an example to address the anxiety over the definition of race and ethnicity, and especially over Japanese American out-marriage.2 Arguing against the recent move toward "postethnic" or "postrace" studies, King contends that the increasing presence of mixed-race persons intensifies "race work that aims to prop up racial concepts using culture, gender, and community networks as scaffolding." She also distinguishes her work from other ethnic beauty pageant scholarship by examining four Japanese American beauty pageants such as Los Angeles' Nisei Week Queen Pageant, Honolulu's Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant, San Francisco's Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant, and Seattle's Japanese Community Queen Pageant. Through comparing and contrasting various beauty pageants, King convincingly showcases how the make-up, and the proximity, of the community affected its definition of Japanese Americans.
Informed by racialization studies, King effectively establishes the critical method of analyzing the complexity and contradictory meanings in beauty pageants. Drawing upon a diverse array of primary sources, such as archival research, participant-observation field work, and sixty interviews, King provides an impressive argument that race is not merely socially constructed but also "work." Through examining the debates over racial eligibility rules and controversies surrounding the pageants, King skillfully explains what she coins "race work," which she defines as "social actors [who] exert extreme efforts in their social actions to sustain the belief that biological notions of race determine ideas about culture." She further explicates the "race work" process by dividing it into four levels: individual negotiations, interpersonal negotiations, collective negotiations, and hierarchical negotiations. Using this method, King concludes that instead of shying away from race, mixed-race beauty pageant candidates often "worked" hard to reinforce the connection between race and culture so that they could be granted with ethnic membership and get access to community networks. Rather than solely focusing on mixed-race people, she uses various examples to illustrate their relations with the Japanese American community. Indeed, the anxiety over mixed-race people was due to the demographic change in the community. With low immigration, high out-marriage, and the rising presence of mixed-race [End Page 380] people, the Japanese American community was compelled to redefine its identity. Instead of seeing out-marriage and the growth of mixed-race people as a threat to the Japanese American community, King argues that many mixed-race people wanted to retain their Japanese American ethnicity through using Japanese names, food, and language, and by maintaining ties to the community. King's case study of mixed-race contestants thus complicates racial thinking and challenges the entrenched idea that "race determines culture (ethnicity)."
Mixed-race candidates were not the only ones who felt compelled to do race work; pageant organizers also made efforts to control contestants' bodies to produce certain types of winners. Because winners were seen as cultural ambassadors and representatives of the community, community members similarly participated in the gendered race work. Through kimono and other judging criteria such as community service, candidates were expected to project certain types of Japanese American womanhood, which usually combined the antiquated form of Japanese femininity and modern practice of community service. However, some pageant winners resisted the racialized gender roles and instead crafted their own definition of Japanese American femininity. Some Japanese American feminists even contested the racialized and gendered institution, and wanted to eliminate ethnic beauty pageants altogether. Their efforts, however, only interrupted San Francisco's beauty pageant for one year. This example thus attests to the importance of beauty pageants to the ethnic community.
King also makes it clear that the definition of Japanese American femininity reached beyond the national border. Japanese nationals had power influencing the beauty pageant through their...