I 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.
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.
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.