Can beauty pageants ever be empowering?

Can beauty pageants ever be empowering?
Can beauty pageants ever be empowering?

New movie Misbehaviour explores the infamous 1970 Miss World event from two perspectives. It’s the latest film to take a nuanced approach to such contests, writes Hanna Flint.

Beauty pageants have long been a contested part of our culture: some see them as a hangover from a far more patriarchal era, while others defend them for helping women of all ages to feel more confident and to know their self-worth. It’s a debate raised in new film, Misbehaviour.

The British film, which is released in the UK on Friday, tells the story of the infamous 1970 Miss World contest from the dual perspectives of Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who earned a historic victory, and the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, led by Keira Knightley’s Sally Alexander, who famously protested against the competition.

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The film offers up a nuanced portrayal of all the key players: beauty contestants, feminists, contest organisers, and even host Bob Hope and his wife Dolores, are given space to reveal their motivations and differing opinions on the Miss World institution, gender equality and intersectional feminism. At its core, Misbehaviour asks: are pageants inherently misogynist or toxic, or can they ever be empowering?

Can beauty pageants ever be empowering? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

It’s a knotty question explored, to varying degrees, in the numerous films about pageants and their contestants that have been made, stretching back to the early days of cinema history.

Women as window dressing

Certainly, the very early movies about pageants hardly showed them in a good light. One of the first films on the subject, Frank Tuttle’s 1926 silent picture The American Venus, saw Miss America herself, Fay Lanphier, land the titular role. The film, one of the first to use Technicolor, follows a PR man hoping to promote a cosmetic business by getting the owner’s daughter to win a beauty pageant. The now-lost movie proved popular and remained in theatres for two years. Clips online reveal some of the title cards used, which detail the body measurements of the Venus de Milo, the ancient Greek statue long considered to be the ideal of womanhood, and offer such quotes as, “an eye feast of beautiful women and luxurious settings” and “a galaxy of gorgeous girls”. According to critics at the time, the movie objectified the female body as much as pageants do.

“Women’s legs, backs, sides and abdomens as low as below the navel, are shown aplenty,” wrote one perturbed critic in the trade journal Harrison’s Report. “Many of the tinted scenes of the fashion revue were very daring in their exposure of the Atlantic City bathing girls,” commented another in the Washington Herald. “One scene especially drew forth gasps from the audience; whether from shock or admiration, we cannot say.”

The American Venus was evidently a movie of its time, in which female characters served as window dressing to the machinations of male characters, as was the case with most other pageant-centred movies in subsequent decades. Don Maguire’s 1957 comedy Hear Me Good is about a conman trying to rig the Miss World Wide Beauty contest by having his girlfriend enter. A few years later, in 1964, came the release of The Beauty Jungle, a Pygmalion-esque story about a journalist who persuades a typist to become a professional pageant competitor. Val Guest’s British comedy was meant to be a satirical exposé of the corrupt pageant industry but the film itself perpetuated a negative view of women by having Janette Scott’s lead trying to sleep her way to victory and showing the other female contestants in bitter conflict, calling each other names like “you bandy-legged cow”.

Satire has often been the lens through which the beauty pageant has been presented. 1975’s Smile, directed by Michael Ritchie and written by Jerry Belson, was praised upon its release with critics like Roger Ebert saying it “does a good job of working over the hypocrisy and sexism of a typical beauty pageant”. However, Christina Newland, film journalist and editor of upcoming book She Found It At The Movies: women writers on sex, desire and cinema, argues that the film is, “totally coloured by a disdain toward women”. 

“Ritchie uses [the film] to diagnose a deeper illness in American society of that time,” Newland adds, “but he is also a man, and he kind of links that social illness to womanhood, or to the feminine. That’s a real issue.”

A more respectful view

The 1999 dark comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, taking its cues from Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, also satirises the pageant industry but importantly both gives respect to its lead beauty queen character, and acknowledges one of the key reasons why a woman may want to compete in such a seemingly antiquated competition: to escape. Kirsten Dunst’s Amber Atkins wants a better life and thinks winning the competition will provide opportunities to leave the trailer park she grew up in. The same goes for Holly Hunter’s Carnelle in 1989’s Miss Firecracker and Minnie Driver’s Mona in 2000’s Beautiful.

Can beauty pageants ever be empowering? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The latter film, the directorial debut of actress Sally Field, follows the beauty pageant obsessed Mona, from a backwater town, who will stop at nothing to win a crown: she even gets her best friend to pretend she is the mother of her child.

“My sister and I produced [Beautiful] primarily because it spoke to an aspect of feminism we are both interested in,” Driver says. “That is – women who would like to speak up but have been societally marshalled into believing they can only do so if they ‘look pretty’.

“Pageants are horrible but that is from my vantage point as a white, privileged woman who had a really good education. I talked to a lot of women, particularly from the South, before we made the film, and for them, pageants were ‘a way out’.”

“Beautiful didn’t delve deeply into a potential feminist evolution,” she adds, “but it has always made me think more deeply about the means of ‘escape’ available to a lot of women, and to also keep examining what they are escaping from.”

Newland believes that a beauty pageant film succeeds when it doesn’t look down upon the institution. “I really enjoy films that don’t actively and aggressively reject the beauty pageant, but which understand – on some level – the urge for women to be beautiful and to be performative with it,” she explains. “I love the trend of beauty pageant movies where women implode the pageant from the inside – [where] they don’t fit the typical mould, and subvert or interrupt the performance.”

2006’s Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine and 2018 Netflix release Dumplin’ are prime examples of this. In the former, Abigail Breslin’s young Olive looks nothing like the hypersexualised child contestants she is competing against, but when it’s her turn to do the talent round, her provocative dance shocks the audience and organisers. Her individuality is championed and unites her bickering family. In Dumplin’, Danielle MacDonald’s titular plus-size heroine leads a revolution at the local contest run by her beauty-queen mother (Jennifer Aniston) by entering and inspiring other non-typical contestants to do so too.

Can beauty pageants ever be empowering? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

2000’s Miss Congeniality also breaks the mould. Though Sandra Bullock’s tomboyish FBI agent Gracie has to get a makeover to fit in with the “she’s beauty, she’s grace” aesthetic of the contest, it’s her intelligence and skill that ultimately helps her to solve the case over her male counterparts and save the day. And while Gracie is the audience’s way into seeing the ridiculousness of beauty pageants and its not-so feminist perpetuation of unfair beauty standards, the film also highlights the importance of female camaraderie and friendship that can exist even when women are competing against each other.

A cinematic whitewashing

However for all these films’ more nuanced and respectful approach to pageants, and those who compete in them, there is still, for the most part, one common denominator: the leading beauty pageant contestants are all white women.

It’s no secret that the European standard of beauty has dominated both beauty competitions and Western cinema over the years, and the number of pageant movies with ethnic minority leads is slim. The 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar saw Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo play two of a trio of drag queens (alongside Patrick Swayze) on a road trip to a contest, while more recently in 2019, Miss Bala, starring Gina Rodriguez, used a beauty contest as a backdrop for the plot, but it didn’t revolve around the competition.

Now, with the arrival of Misbehaviour into cinemas, we are seeing a pageant movie that both focuses on a contestant of colour – and provides one of the most complex depictions of beauty pageants and their place within culture yet.

The film, directed by Phillipa Lowthorpe, takes a comedic approach to the subject matter to entertaining effect, and though it could have spent more time exploring Hosten’s experience rather than those of Alexander and the other white characters – Hosten was the history-maker after all – it does try to empower every side of the feminist argument. Writers Rebecca Frayn and Gabby Chiappe forcefully express how women shouldn’t be herded around and judged like cattle for validation, while also understanding that the effects of these contests may not be wholly negative. In particular, it shows how they can be monumentally influential for contestants of colour – who are not afforded the same opportunities for travel and adventure in the countries they are from as their white counterparts. And also, in turn, how they can have a major impact on audiences of colour, who can see the way they look be celebrated and therefore have more self-love for their own appearance.

“The movie allows you to see the different points of view without actually criticising anyone,” the real Jennifer Hosten, who is now a retired psychotherapist, tells BBC Culture. “It enables you to come away from the movie with an open perspective.”

She believes the period movie is not so much a reminder that pageants are a bad thing in themselves, as that there is still a long way to go when it comes to intersectional equality. “You probably noticed that five women of colour have suddenly won the Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss America and [Miss Teen USA] [all in 2019], but what struck me about all this, is that we are still talking about it as if it’s a novelty.

Can beauty pageants ever be empowering? View image of (Credit: Pathe UK)

“It should be seen as a movement to show the importance of diversity. Culture is diverse. We will have succeeded when we no longer have to talk about it as if it’s such a big thing.”

The future of the pageant

But, diversity aside, what about the future of the beauty pageant? The form of them has certainly evolved over the decades to ensure that women are being celebrated for their intelligence and talent as well as their looks – though Driver would rather that the latter was no longer judged at all. “I would like to believe that an evolutionary path exists where women and the perceived ranking of their beauty ceases to exist,” she says, “[and] where beauty pageants are turned into educational tournaments. If we are to value girls and women more – to give them the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts – we have to stop representing them as objects.”

However, Hosten believes there is still a place for beauty pageants to be an empowering place for women. “We need to be looking at the whole spectrum and stop focusing on beauty pageants as being negative, when in fact it can serve as a stepping stone to something else,” she argues. “There is no one route to achieving one’s goal in life or goals and there are many routes that can lead us to achieve what we might consider relative success.”

And while the debate over beauty pageants continues to evolve, so do the movies that depict pageant culture, as they look for a way to reflect both the diversity of female experience and the struggles that comes when so much of women’s worth is calculated by the way they look. For Newland, the pageant movie sub-genre has a lot to offer.

“[The beauty pageant is] still a thing that happens and carries weight for some people, particularly in places like the American South,” she says. “As long as [they are] relevant or revealing about people’s lives in some way – and I think [they] always will be, because [they are] rich in metaphor – [they] will be worthy of looking at.”

Misbehaviour is released in the UK and Ireland on Friday.

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