- Of Beasts and Beauty: Gender, Race, and Identity in Colombia by Michael Edward Stanfield
Michael Stanfield’s innovative study seeks to explain how Colombians developed a unique public obsession with or cult of female beauty. As reflected in the hundreds [End Page 167] of beauty contests now held across the country and in the lavish “Senorita Colombia” pageant staged regularly since 1947 in the port city of Cartagena, this cult, at first, may not seem so unique. Colombians are not alone in celebrating beautiful women; neighboring Venezuela, for one, has long stood out for its beauty queens, frequent winners of the Miss Universe competition.
But Colombia stands out, says Stanfield, for the extent to which female beauty has become part of its positive civic and national identity. Popular, peaceful, and well- organized public events like the Miss Colombia contest have helped ordinary citizens, if only momentarily, to see the best in themselves and their nation. They help people forget about what Stanfield calls the “beast”: the mix of political violence, corruption, and social injustice that has plagued the country to one degree or another since the years of La Violencia (1948–1953). They also celebrate traditional gender roles and relations while promoting hoary color and class hierarchies. As Stanfield argues, moreover, they have bolstered a dysfunctional political system by, like a telenovela, distracting Colombians from troubling national realities.
Stanfield weaves these insights into a broad survey of Colombian sociocultural and political history that begins in the nineteenth century. The book’s early chapters examine diverse cultural antecedents to the modern Colombian beauty contest along with ideals of beauty that reflected pervasive attitudes toward women as well as those toward different classes and races. Chapter 1 highlights the role of dances and other public festivities such as those associated with Carnival in Cartagena; these set a pattern that would be replicated in twentieth-century pageants. The pattern involved public displays of female beauty in accordance with a protocol that reinforced society’s hierarchical order—in the case of Cartagena’s dances, elite white women always taking the lead, more plebeian dark-skinned women coming after them. Not until 2001, when Colombians for the first time elected a black woman, a native of the department of El Choco, as their national queen, would such a protocol be broken.
Chapter 2 reveals how the late nineteenth century “separate spheres” gender ideology helped define female beauty as something more than physical. Propagated through magazines like El Hogar, the ideal of feminine domesticity meant that to be worthy of admiration, a woman must be—besides chaste, humble, and self-sacrificing—a good wife, mother and homemaker. As Stanfield notes later on, the expectation that queen candidates represent the best of traditional Colombian womanhood, by expressing interest in marriage and homemaking and in careers of social service (or typically female professions like teaching), shows the persistence of this ideal and in turn, of gendered notions of beauty and desirability.
The remaining seven chapters chronicle changes associated with Colombia’s twentieth- century economic modernization, urbanization, and political development through the 1980s, all affecting society and its evolving cult of female beauty. While beauty has been increasingly commodified since about 1914, the byproduct of a growing urban-based consumerism and U.S. influence in fashion and consumer culture generally, Stanfield [End Page 168] sees a key turning point in the assassination of popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The event triggered mass rioting and the destruction of downtown Bogota. As the country drifted toward the fierce partisan warfare that would mark La Violencia, Stanfield asserts in chapter 5, Colombian beauty contests assumed their contemporary role and significance: the “symbolic, non-partisan, civic and peaceful ritual of positive Colombian national identity” (p. 105).
While this argument is plausible, Stanfield bases it on evidence from a rather narrow range of primary sources. Chapters 6 through 9, the heart of his study, rely mainly on a...