What’s Happened to Beauty Queens?

kiraI was surprised – but very pleased – to learn that the newest Miss America, Kira Kazantsev, had interned at Planned Parenthood.  An icon of American womanhood interested in women’s reproductive rights. Imagine that.

She has also taken a strong stand on domestic violence.

Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, has a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She doesn’t find being beautiful incompatible with martial arts or the ability to defend herself. Amazing.

Predictably, Miss America is being attacked by the right wing extremists who oppose not just abortion, but birth Miss USAcontrol and anything else that might give women control over their lives.

And Miss USA got in trouble for suggesting that women learning self defense is one way to reduce rape. While some people thought she was blaming victims, I suspect the criticism was also based on an assumption that women can’t – or shouldn’t be able to – defend themselves.

Whoever expected beauty queens to be controversial? After all, given the way that they’re coached in every aspect of these events, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t know that what they said would provoke a backlash.

As a rule, I don’t like beauty pageants. It’s not just that they promote the idea that women should rely on their looks to get ahead in the world and that attractiveness to men is the most important item in a woman’s life. It’s also that they have a very limited idea of what beauty is.

In the case of Miss America and Miss USA, it’s a bland form of typical American prettiness, once all white, though now expanded to include some people of color. I can think of a lot of people who are stunningly gorgeous who wouldn’t win. It’s a boring ideal at best.

And they have to work at becoming that ideal. It’s not enough to be born with regular features and pleasing appearance; once must do things with hair and skin and body shape to craft a body that meets the test. Then there are the costumes, the lessons in how to move, and the requisite list of activities.

But despite all that, the current title holders have been doing things that don’t strike me as classic beauty queen preparation.

Of course, working at Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be controversial in the least. Women’s reproductive health services should be an ordinary part of life. But the right wing has decided to demonize an organization that provides affordable care to women.

I also have a fourth-degree black belt, so I’ve got some idea of just how much work Miss USA put in to earn her rank. That someone could train seriously and do all the other things necessary to win a pageant is quite impressive.

And she’s right about the value of self defense in preventing assaults on women. As Lynne Marie Wanamaker and Lauren R. Taylor, both self-defense teachers, point out in a Washington Post editorial:

Of course we believe that only one person is responsible for any act of violation: the perpetrator. But we also believe in the power and agency of women.

They go on to say:

Empowerment self-defense teaches skills that are both concrete and flexible. These include interpersonal and environmental awareness, assertiveness, boundary-setting, physical strikes and community-building. These tools can help women ward off sexual predators and deal with harassment and bullying.

I couldn’t agree more.

Certainly self defense training is just one part of the equation. Rapists need to be prosecuted and the culture that winks at assaults and harassment needs to be overturned. But making it clear that women can take action on their own also helps redefine that culture.

In some ways, the attacks on the two beauty queens both reflect a desire to put limits on women. It’s well known that the right wing wants to prevent women from making their own decisions about sex and reproduction.

But those who don’t consider self defense part of the equation in dealing with violence against women are falling into a similar trap: they’re assuming that women aren’t capable of taking care of themselves, that they need to be protected. I think this plays into the hands of those who want to keep women in a secondary role.

In the 1970s, feminists demonstrated against the Miss America pageant. Today, we’re getting lessons in feminism from beauty queens.

Maybe we have come a long way, baby. Or at least, the beauty queens have.

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What’s Happened to Beauty Queens? — 7 Comments

  1. And there’s a logical fallacy at the heart of it. Sports are good, yes? All sports. Girls should do sports! But then they, inevitably, become strong and confident. (Once, in high school, my daughter’s crew team had three hours between training sessions. Instead of hauling home across heavy traffic they spent the time at the nearest shopping mall. It was a seedy one that had been plagued by crime. I said, foolishly, “Darling, will it be safe?” My daughter gave me a look of disbelief. A dozen girls nearly six feet tall and rippling with muscle like panthers — en masse they were accustomed to terror, not being hit on.)

    A similar fallacy revolves around guns. Guns are good, yes? Girls should learn how to shoot. But this does, alas! give them the ability to blow the heads of off men at will. What to do, what to do…

    • I haven’t seen it yet (and am in a coffee shop so will not annoy my neighbors by watching right now), but I understand he did debunk their scholarship claims. I can’t say I ever thought Miss America was about scholarships. I always assume that beauty pageants are about getting noticed for your looks so that you can be a celebrity or possibly an actor or model.