It seems that beauty pageants are back. Until relatively recently, they appeared to me to be consigned to the history books: a quaint and ludicrous reminder of a time when being pretty and coming across as a sweet, nice person were considered the most important attributes a woman could possess and the display of such qualities was even showcased in a ritual that resembled a kind of spectator sport. Indeed, I remember there being a very low response to the yearly call-out for Carnival Queen in the town I used to live, with most girls scoffing with disdain at the idea of partaking in something so old-fashioned. Clamouring to be crowned the prettiest girl in town? Not cool.
It seemed so over to me that it was almost charmingly retro and camp.
That feeling continued and was partly why -even relatively recently– I took the view that there was no problem with “Miss World” style competitions popping up every once in a while. I figured if some people want to use their looks (and obviously what can be considered attractive is subjective anyway), that’s okay.
In principle, I still think that. Or, rather, I would in an ideal world. The trouble is that not only are we living in a time where looks are arguably oppressively important for everyone (just look at how conventionally attractive children’s TV presenters are at the moment) but we still don’t have an equal playing field in terms of turn-taking when it comes to which gender is framed, and thereby facilitated, as generally doing the looking and which one gets to be objectified. That’s why I was pleased to recently get an opportunity to take part in a BBC Radio Newcastle discussion (scroll to an hour and 53 minutes into the programme) with the organiser and co-host of Miss Sunderland, Simon Robertson.
I still maintain that a little bit of objectification (provided the definition allows some level of mutability) isn’t harmful and that, just as we women absolutely need to pull away from being swallowed up by it, men will benefit from being genuinely cherished in such a way more regularly. However, it seems that current fashion is intent on keeping the sexes in their places and, unfortunately, I think that’s why we’re seeing a resurgence of beauty contests. As Catherine recently indicated, even women who are successful and in the public eye for something that has nothing to do with their looks are under pressure to be seen as sexy but men are generally more likely to be shown looking rough and thereby allowed to just let their specialisms shine through. Overall, our culture is saturated with messages that being pretty is still top of the list of important attributes for a woman. Sadly, it seems to be the case that we are “sleazed over while we are young and pretty”, “ignored if we are old or unattractive” and “told we are ugly and jealous when we question this.”
As far as I can tell from a quick look around on the web, it isn’t as if the equivalent contests for men are doing anything to challenge gender stereotypes. We’ve got “Mr Gay UK” (good in some ways but doesn’t exactly go towards busting the stereotypical idea that women “aren’t as visually stimulated”). “Mr Universe” appears to, as ever, be focussed on bodybuilding. “Mr World” is described as “a three week festival of physical endurance and dynamic entertainment” and “a competition of strength, stamina, camaraderie and personal style.” Mr World contestants are “leaders”, “men of dignity”, “caring and conscientious” and “ambassadors of good will”. The words “beauty pageant” are not mentioned. Meanwhile, the rules for “Miss World” contestants are that they must be childless, unmarried and no older than 24. The current Mr World is 26.
And yet, despite this, there still seems to be an impression, for some, that all is equal. As Alfie Joey, one of the presenters of the show on BBC Radio Newcastle, asked in his closing comment on the feature: “Are you a feminist who feels affronted or, girls, do you like a good ogle?” I realise this was probably just a light throwaway remark to get people texting in and I guess he could have been asking the question in the given context (i.e do we like looking at pretty women?) but something about that comment jarred a little for me. Was Alfie fleetingly referring to an increasing (but overdue and still inadequate) general acceptance that women can be visually stimulated too and are not just completely passive? If so, I couldn’t help wondering if he was, in turn, using this as some kind of excuse for continuing to uphold a culture that usually frames women as the ones being looked at; a gentle “Don’t be hypocrites now, girls!”
Excuse me but did I miss something? Maybe an array of lovely men in a beauty pageant in a town near me, donning charming outfits for the audience’s pleasure and delight?