The trouble with beauty pageants


by Malinda Lo

Today NBC announced that it has renewed its agreement with Donald Trump and the Miss Universe Organization to broadcast the Miss Universe and Miss USA competitions on the network for three more years. This comes after the March 23 broadcast of the Miss USA 2007 pageant “was the time period’s top-rated alternative to the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 18-49 and total viewers,” according to the NBC press release. That means it lost to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, by the way, drawing in 7.4 million viewers overall.

This comes on the heels of Donald Trump’s not-firing of Miss USA 2006, Tara Conner, who made tabloid headlines last December when the 21-year-old got a little rowdy by going club-hopping and allegedly kissing a girl (18-year-old Miss Teen USA Katie Blair).

(Click “read more” for my take on the whole Miss USA debacle.)

“I’ve always been a believer in second chances,” Trump said at the time of his decision to not fire her from the morally upstanding post of Miss USA. “She left a small town in Kentucky, and she was telling me that she got caught up in the whirlwind of New York.”

A contrite Tara Conner responded by saying: “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to better myself. Not only given a chance to better myself, but to better me as a Miss USA. I plan on walking out of this the best Miss USA you’ve ever seen.”

Well, her reign ended last Friday night when Miss Tennessee, Rachel Smith, took the crown. She received, among other things, a year-long salary as Miss USA, a two-year scholarship from the NY Film Academy, a one-year modeling representation with Trump Model Management, a New York City apartment for the year of her reign including living expenses, and hair products, shoes and swimwear. Miss USA now goes on to represent our fine country at the 2007 Miss Universe pageant, which will take place on May 28th in Mexico City.

Beauty pageants have gotten a lot of flak from feminists who object to, well, basically everything about them from the swimsuit competition to the unavoidable fact that these competitions judge a woman’s appearance, thus leading to loads of potential body image issues. I admit that as a child, I loved watching the Miss America pageant, though, and I even thought their evening dresses were pretty cool. Then again, my favorite fairy tale has long been “Cinderella,” and these pageants are nothing if not an attempt at replicating a “Cinderella” experience.

As a former anthropologist, I think that beauty pageants are totally fascinating cultural events. They really do say a lot about the way we view women, their bodies and their so-called “talents.” Nonetheless, they do still make me cringe a little. Though I know that they are often a way for young women to win scholarships and prize money (much more efficiently than babysitting), beauty pageants still underscore heterosexual, feminine attributes and teach girls to behave in traditional ways.

I still love “Cinderella,” but “Cinderella” as a fairy tale, I now know, is about a lot more than hooking up with the rich, handsome prince. It’s also about the death of one’s parents, learning to live on your own, and working hard. Somewhere, beauty pageants — and the vast majority of our culture — forgot that part of the “Cinderella” story. They just skipped ahead to the ball.

As for Tara Conner, her 15 minutes of fame are probably over now. The saddest part of her tale is that she had to apologize for having a grand ol’ time — something no man in her position would have had to do. The double standard, obviously, continues.


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