Where the real embarrassment lies in beauty pageants

The most awkward moment of the Miss Universe pageant this week wasn't host Steve Harvey naming the wrong winner on live television - it's that in 2015, a pageant still exists that parades women around in bikinis for the honour of winning a sash and a tiara.

That's the true embarrassment.

That Mr Harvey couldn't distinguish one pretty woman from another is almost poetic because in pageants like Miss Universe, Miss America and Miss USA, women aren't individuals anyway. They're literal symbols - unnamed besides the state or country they're there to represent. It's the ultimate display of women as interchangeable, vying for the right to be the shiniest object in the room.

The contests are an antiquated reminder of exactly what we don't want for women, and they should have no place in our future.

(From left) Miss Croatia Mirta Kustan, Miss Aruba Alysha Boekhoudt and Miss Japan Ariana Miyamoto during rehearsals on Saturday in this photo provided by the Miss Universe Organisation. PHOTO: REUTERS

The contests are an antiquated reminder of exactly what we don't want for women, and they should have no place in our future.

The notion that beauty pageants are anything more than an opportunity to ogle gorgeous, scantily clad women and pit them against one another has long been debunked.

Despite longstanding claims that pageants like Miss America are a major source of scholarships for young women, the truth is that they offer only a fraction of the money that they claim they do. Women who participate are also much more likely to spend money than make money on the endeavour - the cost of dresses, hair and make-up, entrance fees and more is the responsibility of the contestants alone.

The pageants themselves - in addition to the explicitly vacuous swimsuit competition - have policies and rules that make clear women's worth is very much dependent on their sexuality and ability to perform a narrow model of proper femininity.

It was only in 1999 that Miss America finally did away with a "purity" rule that banned contestants from being divorced or having had an abortion, for example, and the pageant still has strict "morality" clauses.

In 2002, Miss North Carolina Rebekah Revels was forced to turn in her crown after it came out that her boyfriend had taken topless pictures of her; and after being crowned Miss USA in 2006, Kentucky's Ms Tara Conner was embroiled in a scandal because she went to clubs, drank alcohol and perhaps had a few sexual escapades. How dare she!

Then co-owner of Miss USA, Mr Donald Trump, publicly forgave Ms Conner and sent her to rehab. "I've always been a believer in second chances," he said at the time.

Later , Mr Trump reported that he was considering giving his "permission" for Ms Conner to pose in Playboy. Showing off your body is fine, it seems, so long as the man in charge gives you his blessing.

Despite the progress women have made over the years, there are still plenty of reminders of how far we still have to go. And feminists are still fighting against some of the same big issues - like the wage gap and sexual violence - that they were decades ago.

But it seems strange that during a time when we may soon see the first female president and when feminism is more culturally powerful than ever before, that we cannot seem to figure out a way to do away with something as obviously misogynist and retrograde as beauty pageants.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Where the real embarrassment lies in beauty pageants'. Print Edition | Subscribe