Nothing says ‘female empowerment’ like a university beauty pageant

Without a doubt, if I were to call upon any of the prominent transformative women’s movements of the last few decades, all would sagely agree that the epitome of emancipation and female agency is the sound of three-inch heels clicking along a cat-walk, and the vapid ‘fashion’ and aphorisms of beauty pageantry.

This is what the organisers of ‘Miss Warwick University 2010’ clearly believe — or we can only hope, believed. After all, such a torrent of disbelieving vitriol rained down on the so named Facebook group that a swift rebranding ensued, dropping all pretence towards feminism, and any claim to be an “exciting venture to highlight and _empower_ the brightest and boldest females at Warwick University.” (My emphasis). Before venturing into the swift collision this event brought between feminism and the more reactionary elements of misogyny, it is surely worth querying how Miss Warwick ever hoped to find the individual who best encapsulates an ‘environment full to the brim of charismatic and sociable woman with real ambition’ by culminating their search ‘in a unique fashion show’.

Of course, most of the comments that soon flooded the Facebook group’s wall didn’t emanate from the organisers themselves. The following wall post acts as decent enough example of the more facetious comments:

‘It saddens my old heart to see these so-called “feminists” trying to disrupt this piece of legitimate fun. They did it when I was at university, in the sixties, too. We could stage nary a burlesque show or a mud wrestling contest without the picket lines forming. As now, the justification was quite obviously the ugly envy of the participants’ looks. But thankfully, as now, feminists who could argue their way out of a debate can’t argue their way out of a robust back-hander.’

Thankfully few of the comments attempted to (seriously) defend the atavistic notion of the beauty pageant. The few defences put forth ran along the lines of ‘you’re just ugly and feel threatened’, ‘it’s just a bit of fun’, or the more insidious ‘everyone’s a willing participant, so who are you to say they shouldn’t enter?’

Before this event came up on the radar, I would have thought it to be self evident that reducing women’s value to a purely appearance-based realm is to devalue both their agency and humanity. (Although, as a man I have never been subjected to the still pervasive patriarchy in society in quite the same way. Though that is not to say men have not also been subject to a form of oppression coming from pernicious heteronormativity and traditional masculine gender roles.)

Returning to the theme of this article, however, in paraphrasing another contributor, the cat-walk ultimately reduces women to the status of being object of the judges’ desire; hardly what an empowering movement needs.

Perhaps most worrying is the level of hostility, — beyond the facetious remarks, which are indicative enough — without any reasoned argument. The commonality between most of the attacks was the age-old accusation of feminism as being the dour, life-sucking ethos associated with ugly, and for good measure, hairy women. The notion that men can and should be feminists too seemed not to have dawned on most of the more acerbic contributors. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, in what is understood to be a reasonably socially progressive country, such ignorance is a cause for concern, and indicates that perhaps our collective ideas are not as entrenched as we might think.

Aside from the ideological storm that I’ve touched upon here -– and I do seriously suggest checking out [this now defunct group]( for yourself –- it is quite telling that none of the organisers responded to the accusations of ideological naivety and the underpinning patriarchy, but instead chose to finally shed the disastrous vessel, redefining the event in a new Facebook incarnation as a ‘friendly beauty competition’. I suppose the qualifier ‘friendly’ is meant to mollify us angry feminists who will presumably start bleating about objectification again.

As for the entrants’ ability to articulate themselves in a manner not involving their physical appearance, only one reference remained. The rebranded event encourages ‘girls’ (not even women!) to ‘tell us as much as possible about themselves’ before the final. The final event of course will have no time for verbal articulation, so even if brains will get you some of the way, ultimately it will be only so far. The glass ceiling remains intact.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all is the instrumental use of its charitable contribution as a bulwark against criticism. According to the Miss Warwick group, all the event’s proceeds will go to the Red Cross as part of the Haiti relief. A laudable gesture indeed, but one that is still predicated on the objectification of women. It’s hard to be anything less than ambivalent.

If and when ‘Miss Warwick’ is ultimately crowned, it will be no more than the coronation of the norms and prejudices that it seemed were slowly becoming a thing of the past. A tiara is no indicator of self-worth, and no substitute for emancipation.


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