The final of the Miss University London Beauty Contest took place on Tuesday 10 March. We disguised ourselves in high heels and revealing dresses to infiltrate the event, a pageant of sexism and delusion in an apparently “post feminist” Britain. Could we pass as the sort of people who would pay to go and watch young female students parading in front of whooping crowds of drunks, to be judged on how they filled out an evening gown? Although we were prepared to step outside our comfort zone, we were shocked by the atmosphere inside the club. Aggression was in the air, and we were leered over and touched-up as we negotiated the crowds.
We left fake intelligence tests, stink bombs and set off personal alarms as the competition got underway. The foul smell emanating from all around was our way to demonstrate the reality of the casual and pervasive sexism that we experience in our daily lives, and which we saw manifested so vividly in the beauty pageant. It stinks. And we wanted the people there to feel it.
Just before they announced the winner, we invaded the stage, and threw out the open letters that we had written to the audience members and to the contestants on stage, explaining why we were there.
The action was not about (ugly) women versus (pretty) women. Playing women against each other is one of the tricks of patriarchal society, a divide-and-rule strategy which is remarkably effective. It is a way to attack women for whatever choices they make
We disrupted the pageant because we need the people complicit in it to know that it is not okay and that, despite the dominant socio-cultural dynamics of contemporary post modernity, producing and encouraging superficiality and commodification, there is real resistance to it.
And we paid our own homage to the earlier generation of women whose disruptions of the Miss America contest in 1968 kicked off their struggle for our rights. We hoped to show that what they fought against has not gone away.
Although the media response has, typically, played it this way, the action was not about (ugly) women versus (pretty) women. Playing women against each other is one of the tricks of patriarchal society, a divide-and-rule strategy which is remarkably effective. Just like the polarising dichotomies of Madonna/whore or mother/worker, it is a way to attack women for whatever choices they make.
We resist this; our gripe was with the contest and the wider problem of which it is such a vivid symbol. Our issue, furthermore, was with the brazenness of a commercial company deciding to see this as just another gap in the market, seeking to profit directly from women’s social anxieties and the inequalities in our culture.
The organisers of the pageant, 121 Entertainment, think they can get away with claiming that the contest is ’empowering’, while profiting from the social anxieties which keep women interested in gaining this kind of applause
Neither is this a question of women hating men; the use of this stereotype is another way feminists are undermined. The group which took action at the pageant included men, who like us saw the connections between the pageant and other forms of oppression and exploitation. A culture which positions women as objects to be gawped at and men as leering figures of power is damaging to men, women and everyone in between.
The action was not random, but thought through and properly discussed in our collective. We were shocked by how much energy we needed to persuade others in social justice movements that the action was valid: we were told it was retro and that objectification of women was not a priority. There was resistance to our clear belief that gender issues, and the way we treat each other on a personal basis, are intricately connected with exploitation in all its forms.
Beauty pageants, along with the constant attention on women’s outfits and bodies in the media, show that that women are still judged primarily on their physical appearance. This is an important power dynamic; subtle and hard to quantify and counter. Equal rights legislation is not going to change it, nor is individual career success for some women.
The argument that the battles for equality have been won were used to justify the pageant and internalised by the women who took part in it: the idea of free choice was raised repeatedly by the contestants, the organisers and those who defended the contest.
The claim is that if women choose to be looked at in this way, as feminists we should support their rights to choose and should not do anything which impedes their freedom to do what they want. This philosophy of personal liberty belies the original implications of liberation, which carries with it a sense of collectivity and an integral connection to other issues of race, class and economic oppression.
We were not just challenging a beauty contest – how women are perceived flows directly into how they are treated
This argument tells us that our freedom, our equality, is to be found in the denial of this. The logic runs that sex is still the most important physical currency, so instead of being used by it, we can now harness that power to manipulate others, and achieve success and financial capital in the individualistic and competitive manner so beloved of late-modern capitalism.
This is why the organisers of the pageant, 121 Entertainment, think they can get away with claiming that the contest is “empowering”, while profiting from the social anxieties which keep women interested in gaining this kind of applause.
The ‘choice’ to take part in a beauty pageant is rooted in a historical and social context, and the individual decision made by contestants to enter is not just a personal one. It justifies and perpetuates a culture which demeans women by limiting their power to a superficial, subjective and transient appeal.
It also belies the idea of choice by excluding anyone outside the very narrow confines of this ideal of beauty; as a young, slim and able bodied woman you may be marginalised because your good looks are too distracting, and if you are anything else, you will be marginalised because you do not merit the attention. Until we can choose not to be sleazed over while we are young and pretty, until we can choose not to be ignored if we are old or unattractive, until we can choose not to be told we are ugly and jealous when we question this, we will engage in whatever actions we need to in order to stand up clearly and resist.
We want to talk about these issues, because we are appalled that the beauty myth is still so prevalent and the organisers of this pageant have so successfully managed to monetise it. We are frustrated that the process of challenging it seems to require so much justification. But we are excited and motivated by our success – challenge and resistance to oppression is genuinely empowering.
We also need to ensure that the critique we offer is systemic and extends into our personal relationships
But we were not just challenging a beauty contest – how women are perceived flows directly into how they are treated. If women are perceived as primarily a good body, it is a short step to those bodies being owned, being mistreated, being denigrated, being of no account – those ideas can lead to violence, abuse, ownership and rape. Therefore we need to fight those perceptions wherever they arise. So on this occasion, we made a noise about it, we messed it up for them and we all need to carry on being noisy – and militant when the occasion demands.
Throughout the history of women’s rights, one recurring theme has been the desire to make the invisible visible, the quieted voices heard, and to make clear the absolute connection between the personal and the political. This narrative is clearly evolving and continuing, despite the claims from some that the battle is over and equality is won. We need to carry it on.
But we also need to ensure that the critique we offer is systemic and extends into our personal relationships. We need to carry on engaging in dialogue with our male and female friends who don’t see the harm in beauty contests or what they stand for. Equally we need to shout in the faces of those people who deliberately confuse tawdry objectification with empowerment because they think it will sell.
Just as within the action, when we delivered the visceral stunt shocks as well as the more detailed explanation to back those stunts up, we need both direct action and sustained and informed dialogue to keep challenging it, as well as evolving in our own daily interactions with the men and women in our lives.
Please read our blog, which goes into more detail about the action, including a video where you can see for yourselves what kind of environment it was and read the texts we distributed to the crowds.
And get in touch if you’re interested or appalled by what we’ve done and lets talk about it. Especially as the preparations for Miss Great Britain get underway, and 121 threatens to roll out the pageant across the UK…