Passing judgement on pageants

03:18, Jun 20 2013
Marissa Powell
BAFFLED BEAUTY: Miss Utah Marissa Powell managed to come third runner up and win Miss Photogenic in the Miss USA competition despite earning the wrong kind of attention for her confused question response.

Marissa Powell, the Miss Utah entrant in the Miss USA 2013 pageant, has attracted substantial interest on social media thanks to her somewhat confused response to a question regarding the gender inequality of wages in the US.

Attempting to address the question by referring to education, her poor use of grammar added a sense of unconscious irony to her otherwise awkward answer.

Naturally, the first response has been to lampoon the girl. To a certain extent this is not unwarranted, given that the contestants know well in advance they are required to answer such questions.

But the example serves as an interesting insight into the way the presentation of women in events such as these affects the way they are perceived generally, and how commentary or even discontent about that presentation manifests in the public sphere.

First, it is worth keeping in mind that the girl in question is only 21-years-old.

Second, there are plenty of people who aren't great public speakers at the best of times, who, under bright lights and a fair amount of pressure, might not be able to construct their best turn of phrase in response to even simple questions.


Though Powell may not be much chop even in conversations of a more casual nature, the inanity of her words distract from a larger question that should be asked of pageants in general.

But first, why are these girls even asked to answer questions?

My personal suspicion is that it allows the slippery promoters of the events to defend against accusations that they are outright perv-fests that objectify women and attempt to do little more than venerate a subjective view of ''beauty''.

By being required to raise funds for charity, or being asked questions just as vapid as most of the answers about ''values'' and how to solve complex social issues that would require far more than a one-liner from even the most learned anthropologist or philosopher, the pageant attempts to paint a very thin veneer of respectability over what is otherwise merely a mechanism for men and women to judge the contestants on their appearance.

So what's wrong with that? In essence, nothing; it is not inappropriate for anyone to appreciate the appearance of their fellow human beings, male or female, young or old.

But pageants are not about humans generally, they are specifically about nubile females whose sole value to the judges is an appearance of ''beauty'', which is really just another way of saying they display the genetic markers of youth and fertility.

These kinds of competitions are indicative generally of a powerful vein of female role modelling in most cultures, not just Western ones. They might manifest differently elsewhere but their purpose is the same.

Some might suggest only ''young'' women are affected but while such things are obnoxious to many women (and men) of all ages, it is likely that they also serve as a subconscious reminder of what some parts of our society insist on suggesting is the foremost value a female can possess - the genetic markers of youth and fertility, or ''beauty'', if you insist.

The tragedy is that pageants seduce some young women with the idea they are a quick path to some kind of higher social value, a level of value they may not be able to easily achieve without what might be their primary asset - their physical appearance.

There is also a lot more to be said about the fact that a lot of men express a strong preference for women whom they view as physically attractive but do not find to be intellectually or socially threatening - just the kind of girl a beauty pageant likes to put on display.

The true irony in all this is that pageant contestants are often homogeneously bronzed, dolled-up things in heavy make-up, all of which actually stifle the genetic markers that are meant to be appreciated by looking at someone who is ''attractive''.

But beyond that, pageants suggest - in fact, demand - that women who take part be judged almost entirely on their appearance.

This is the aspect of the pageants themselves that needs to be addressed; the questions and commentary from the judges and the shape and purpose of the entire glitzy event are where the true vitriol should be aimed.

Ultimately, the beauty queens are just like sportspeople; they only have a certain amount of time to exploit what advantages they have and it stands to reason that if their appearance is their big asset, they deserve the chance to make the most of it.

Sydney Morning Herald