From the Basement

May 22, 2010

On the latest Miss USA scandal

In college, I triple majored in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies. I mostly don’t blog about politics or feminist issues; I’ve mellowed over the years and opted to make faith and life transition the focus of this blog rather than using it as a platform to discuss issues.

But, even though I’m a little late to the party on this one, I couldn’t help but put my two cents in.

Over the last ten days or so, scandal has erupted in the Miss USA world (again) as two racy sets of photos were released about Rima Fakih, the latest winner. One set features Fakih competing in a stripper pole contest at an event held by a Michigan radio station; the judges were strippers, the audience was female, and there was no nudity. The second set – if I’ve done my research correctly – was released by the pageant itself and featured Fakih in lingerie, at times topless.

And so the media finds itself once again between a rock and a hard place, alternately celebrating and stigmatizing the actions of hypersexualized beauty queens, while the public reacts in outrage that “such a woman” (not quoting anyone directly there) would be uplifted as a role model and as a representative of the United States. Both sides seem to ignore their complicity in creating a culture where this behavior thrives.

Quite simply, women in beauty pageants are in – do we honestly need to be reminded? – beauty pageants. In that industry, good looks are currency and good presentation is a deal-breaker. I have a cousin who was a child beauty queen (was Little Miss [state], as a matter of fact), and my uncle pulled her from the pageant circuit when he saw how deeply it was affecting her even at ten years old. That’s anecdotal, and it’s not meant as exclusive evidence but rather to help prove a point: most of the women in Miss America and Miss USA pageants did not enter on a dare but rather were brought up on the pageant circuit, being bred for these very contests.

They are raised in a hypersexualized atmosphere that values them for their body – that gets them public acclimation, money, and awards if they win. But when these women take charge of their bodies, whether it’s on a stripping pole or in a sensual photography session, we vilify them. (Though whether they’re taking charge or are delving further into their prescribed roles is a matter of debate).

In short, the media feigns outrage when they’re well aware that they fuel the atmosphere these women thrive in.

Quotes from the film Miss Congeniality come to mind when I try to put myself in the contestants’ and contest organizers’ shoes. “This is not a beauty pageant; this is a scholarship program!” And I do not doubt that many of the women in the pageant are remarkably intelligent, accomplished, and driven. There’s no way they’d get where they are if they weren’t.

It just so happens that the vehicle they’ve chosen (or perhaps, their parents chose) to propel their success is one that, first and foremost, values them for their bodies, for their beauty, for their ability to physically appeal to a mass audience.

For me, the issue is not that Fakih posed or stripped. She’s an accomplished woman who – more to the point – is an adult woman who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions (the level of how much they are culturally informed by the beauty industry is another discussion). The issue that sparks my indignation is our reaction as a culture, the blatant hypocrisy, the stinking self-righteousness as we set these women up to take a “fall.”

I’ll close with a quote from Donald Trump. When asked about the racy stripping and lingerie photos, he said “It would be foolish to consider anyone other than Rima to represent the USA.  The photos taken from our website are no more provocative than those on the Miss USA website.”

Exactly.

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