Chapter3 part c: the Image of the Beauty Queen
Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants:
The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter III part c:
The Ideal of The Beauty Queen
Of all three forms of theatre described in this study, the beauty pageant is the onemost conspicuously concerned with the ideal of womanhood presented by its performers.Unlike the other two forms of theatre however, beauty pageants as a rule tend to taketheir ideal images so seriously that they frequently confuse them with reality, and expecttheir performers to live up to the ideal in their daily lives. Beauty contestants arejudged not only on their on-stage performances, but on personal interviews, and in somecases on the information judges have on contestants' personal, professional and charitableactivities. Since judging often includes these areas which cross over from thecontestants' real lives it can become extremely difficult to separate the beauty contestperformer's ideal image from her day-to-day reality. This problem is fostered by theamateur status of the performers, and the extreme seriousness with which they and thejudges often treat this ideal image. As Pam Eldred, Miss America 1970 observed:
After participating in the Miss Detroit, Miss Michigan, and then the Miss America pageants, I knew that the most beautiful girls didn't always win. What the judges were looking for were young women who set goals and dreams for themselves. They were looking for women who were willing to work toward goals by continuing their education, by devoting time to perfecting a talent, and by taking pride in themselves and trying to be the most attractive person they could be.
With a performance standard that requires a total commitment to the ideal in one'sprivate life, many pageant contestants are bound to become obsessed with the ideal andfeel that living up to it holds the key to their future happiness. Pageant enthusiastsstate over and over, in the publications they have created for one another, that theprocess of preparing for a pageant by a transformation of one's appearance and lifestyleis the real goal and virtue in a pageant. Pageants are seen by these people as groupconsciousness raising sessions that provide support for self-improvement throughdiscipline. Their literature promotes pageantry with the kind of zeal usually seen infollowers of obscure religious sects.
Through all this, the one theme that dominates is the ideal of the performer. Pageantjudges are expected to select a woman to represent what pageant officials have decided arethe ideal qualities of a Miss Whatever. This is where pageant people and their criticsusually conflict, since the ideal of women promoted by pageants naturally does notcoincide perfectly with the ideals of other groups. As long as pageants present theirwinners as representing the preferred ideal of womanhood they will continue to be attackedby those individuals and organizations who prefer another ideal. The ideal of most beautypageants is a conservative one, due to the composition of the pageant audience (seeChapter II), and is composed of rather vague, amorphus guidelines in order to be flexibleenough to fit a variety of contestants. The judges' manual for the Miss Americapreliminaries in 1990 lists the basics in terms of that particular competition:
Miss America is a vibrant, concerned woman, accepting the challenges for today and possessing even more exciting dreams for tomorrow...women are being sought with the best composite of the following attributes:
Communication and interpersonal skills
Consider well these qualities of each contestant-- be governed by absolutes.
The notion that people can be judged by "absolute" standards in itself isoffensive to some people even when the ideal goals of intelligence, talent, etc. areadmired. However it is the cornerstone of pageant thinking that the ideals of womanhood aspresented in the pageant are there not merely to be enacted, but to be lived up to. Thiskind of thinking becomes apparent whenever a winner is "caught" doing somethingthat the pageant officials feel is not in keeping with the image of the competition. Thewinner is assumed to have no right to a private life, and can be dethroned by officialswho disapprove of anything she does in her personal life, from marrying, to posing nude,to making a personal political statement.
The two most famous cases in which pageant officials have forced title holders torelinquish their crowns are those of Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984, and Kathy Huppe,Miss Montana 1970. Ms. Williams was forced to resign when it was disclosed that she hadposed for a photographer in the nude, even though this event took place years before sheentered the competition, or began to work for the pageant organization. Ms. Huppe wasforced out of her job by the pageant organizers because she was against the Vietnam War,and refused to transfer to the university which they preferred, despite the fact that thejudges who selected her knew her views and her university from the beginning, and she madeno "embarrassing" statements about Vietnam. In both cases the organizers of thepageants were determined, at all costs, to rid themselves of title holders who did not fittheir ideals, even in areas which most employees consider personal and private.
Contest officials have objected to winners before, and have even canceled their owncompetitions rather than acknowledge a winner who doesn't fit their ideal image of acontestant. The New York Times reported one such incident in 1924:
The Flushing [New York] beauty contest was terminated abruptly yesterday, as Dorothy Derrick, 17 years old, a negro girl, was in third place and threatening to gain. For two days Dorothy Derrick led the Flushing beauties in the balloting. She had dropped to third place, but was threatening a comeback, when the managers...decided that the public could not be trusted in a delicate matter of this kind. Democratic principles have been abandoned entirely and the premiere Flushing beauty will be selected by a small committee of hand-picked connoisseurs. Dorothy Derrick is a granddaughter of the Right Rev. Bishop William B. Derrick of the African Methodist Church. She is a student at Hunter College and was an honor student at Flushing High School, of which she is a graduate. She is said to be handsome in her way.
Apparently the merchants and townspeople of Flushing, however, had lessprejudice than the socially prominent organizers of the festival and a day after thecontest was called off, they revived it:
The popularity contest...called off by the Green Twigs, an organization of socially prominent women, will be continued by Flushing merchants, who will give prizes to the winners.
Officers of the Green Twigs said they had terminated the contest because of bitterness it had stirred up. At that time Miss Violet Meyer, of Jewish parentage and whose father conducts a corner newsstand, was in the lead, and Miss Dorothy Derrick, a negress, was third. As a result it was charged that racial and social prejudice had prompted the Green Twig's action.
Certainly, racial prejudice has barred many contestants from pageant competitions, mostnotably the Miss America Competition, which was "lily-white" until 1970. In thewhole history of the Miss America Pageant there has been only one Jewish winner (BessMyerson, 1945), and three Black winners (Vanessa Williams, 1984, Debbye Turner, 1990, andMarjorie Vincent, 1991) as compared to 59 "lily- white" winners. There has neverbeen an Asian, Hispanic, or Native-American winner in the whole history of the Pageant.[note, this was true when I wrote my dissertation in 1991, it is not truenow] This is embarrassing evidence of the essentially racist image of what constitutes ideal"American" beauty.
It has even been pointed out that both Williams and Turner have bone structure andfeatures which are more commonly "white" features than black ones. In addition,the choice of Williams was attacked by some black critics because of Williams' green eyesand light skin that conformed to "white" standards of beauty. However, it islikely that neither of these women, although both extremely beautiful and talented, wouldhave had as good a chance of winning if they had worn their hair in braids, or corn rows,or some other style that is associated with their ethnic heritage. Unfortunately, the MissAmerica standard of beauty is a white standard and any contestant who doesn't fit thatstandard has to "mold" herself to fit it as best she can or forgo any chance ofwinning.
Debra Johnson, Miss Compton 1985, who participated in the Miss California Pageant ofthat year, described the problem of being black in a traditionally white pageant in aninterview in the documentary Miss...or Myth?
Well, Miss California has been around for 62 years and they have not chosen a woman of color yet. I think that they have an idea of what a Miss California is supposed to be. Black women, or women of color, minority women don't fit into that image. And I never went in thinking, "I'm not going to win because I'm black." I never had that attitude. Until you become a part of it, and then you think, "Oh, so that's what's happening here," you know. What you did feel was that they look at you more as a threat, instead of just another contestant. Especially if you were good. You got the feeling that no matter how good you were though, you were not going to win. And I don't mean to say that everybody in the Miss California Pageant is a racist. There are beautiful people in the pageant. But this is an American problem, and the Miss California Pageant is part of that problem...it has its weaknesses. And hopefully this year, next year, four years, five years down the line, they're going to strengthen those weaknesses. And they have the potential to be a very good, positive program for American women.
In 1989, reporters at USA Today tried to figure out exactly what the ideal imageof the Miss America Pageant was:
She's an "ideal," says Miss America Pageant director Leonard Horn..."If you're gonna have an ideal, it's not going to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame." To create a three-dimensional composite of that ideal 1990 American Miss, USA TODAY interviewed all 51 contestants---on subjects ranging from her looks to her favorite snacks to her beliefs about abortion. She'll agree with the pageant's decision not to use measurements in the competition. She'll want to get married and have two to three children. She'll never have smoked a cigarette, except to try one. Beyond that, the 1990 winner is likely to be brown-haired, white, a Protestant, a Republican who supports the right of a woman to choose an abortion. She'll probably have a musical talent, will have last read a non-fiction book (most likely something motivational) and think sex before marriage is "always" or "almost always" wrong. She'll probably be one of three children and be planning to work outside the home while she raises her own family. All the women exercise rigorously---14 hours a week on the average. Two contestants work out just five hours a week; two, an amazing 35 hours. Rounding out the picture: Our average Miss America 1990 contestant is the youngest in her family, was a member of her high school honor society but not a member of her college sorority, and didn't wear braces on her teeth. And she most likely disapproves of women posing nude for magazines.
Since pageant people don't usually think there is anything wrong with their standards,they also don't find anything wrong with people trying to live up to them. They generallyregard the process of a woman transforming herself into an image of a "perfect"beauty queen as a positive one that helps women to learn how to be attractive, impressothers, and succeed in the masculine- dominated outside world of business, politics, andthe media. And it is undoubtedly true that it does just that. Beauty pageant winnerscontinue to become lawyers, corporate executives, and television journalists, due to thepractice they get at dealing with the public as contestants and winners. Even in areaslike business and television, women are still judged primarily on how they look, howgracious they can be, and how "adaptable" they are to the other people (ie. men)around them, before they are judged on their abilities. While men have to do good work,women in traditionally masculine professions have to do good work and look good if theyare to be accepted. In this sense the conservative, upper-middle class WASP training inhow to be non-threatening that the pageant provides is valuable training for today'supwardly mobile woman. In that sense the pageant system is a very realistic reflection ofthe modern ideal of the American woman, and the pageant is far less at fault for trainingwomen to fit this standard than the public in the outside world is in expecting it ofwomen in the first place. Many pageant contestants accurately see pageants as excellenttraining grounds for women to learn how to survive in an America that already is subtlyracist, sexist, and increasingly class-conscious.
The image of women demanded by pageants is a reflection of the image demanded of womenby American society. While few people actually expect women to conform to the image of thefashion model or the stripper in their daily life, there is a persistent myth that anylittle girl can grow up to become Miss America if she tries hard enough (like the mythabout growing up to be President), and that every woman really should at least make theattempt. Women who do not attempt to become "pretty" are regarded as peculiar,if not openly hostile to society. Wearing makeup, dieting, and altering one's natural hairin some way are all considered part of the "normal" behavior of females in oursociety:
A woman who rejects makeup, stops shaving her legs, or stops wearing a bra redefines herself and is relegated to a special category. Her pale lips or hairy limbs pronounce her an anomaly...a woman who fails to play her proper part...will soon be seen as a threat to the whole system.
While this attitude persists in society, the ideal of Miss America and other pageantswill continue to require significant enhancement of a woman's physical appearance bymakeup, hairdressing, dieting, and exercise, bringing the modern woman's drive, ambition,and determination into the area of personal beauty. This is not a carry-over from thedistant past, but (in pageant terms) is a recent development. Back in the early days ofpageants audiences preferred sweet, innocent, (passive and pliable) "homegirls," and a driving ambition to make oneself pretty was as unacceptable as adriving ambition was in any other field. Naturally, then, at that time contestantspresented an image that was in line with the audience taste that regarded bobbed orbleached hair and a face with makeup as sinful. And nearly every beauty contest (in theearly Twenties) selected finalists and winners with long brown hair and"natural" beauty.
Contestants caught on to these image requirements, and presented their own imageaccordingly. Wise contestants made a point of entering without makeup and with long hair.At the second annual Miss America competition in 1922 only three contestants out of 57 hadbobbed hair. Also there is no record that any contestant admitted to using cosmetics, and"almost the first words of Mary Catherine Campbell of Columbus, the new MissAmerica" reported The New York Times were "I don't use cosmetics."This was obviously a politic statement at a time when the conservative Timeseditorial section suggested that the judges should bar any contestant who used makeup fromentering in the first place.
Winning beauty contestants in Miss America have carefully groomed their image to matchthe conservative public taste in makeup and hair, never going to a high fashion extreme.Miss America winners didn't choose to sport teased beehive hairdos until the fashion hadalready gone "out" among girls in their age group, and then they continued towear them for nearly ten years. It took five years after American college-age girls firstwore long straight hair in 1965 before a winner (Phyllis George, Miss America 1971) wasseen wearing it. Consistently, beauty queens pick hair styles pioneered as much as tenyears earlier in order to cater to the conservative pageant image. Now that conservativepublic taste toward makeup has changed, the situation with regards to cosmetics hasreversed its 1921 stance: a contestant cannot even win a preliminary competition withoutmakeup, because makeup is worn by conservative women and a clean face is regarded by manyas the sign of a militant feminist.
Pageant winners are now judged not on how nature made them look, but on how well theyhave used makeup, hair, dress, dieting and exercise to make themselves look "the bestthey can be." So contestants are extremely open in describing the efforts (exercise,diet, makeup, etc.) they took to improve their appearance. The artifice of makeup in thecontext of a beauty pageant is seen as symbolic, not of deception, but of a striving forperfection. Natural obstacles, like fat, imperfect facial features, social or physicalgracelessness, and social or physical handicaps, from illnesses to racial stereotypes, areall obstacles that are meant to be conquered by the contestant in her search forself-perfection. In this context cosmetics are seen as primary tools in a struggle againstthis imperfection, and they assume an almost religious virtue for some contestants as aresult. Pam Eldred, Miss America 1970, now gives advice in pageant magazines on usingmakeup for pageants. One article of hers demonstrates the pageant theory of the purpose ofmakeup (and pageantry) as part of a program of self improvement:
Now that you have properly showcased [with makeup] the special you, don't forget to smile, relax, and enjoy the other girls. The only person you are competing against is yourself. No matter what the outcome, you have challenged yourself and met that challenge.
The physical image of the beauty queen requires more than just makeup and hairspray,the body image requires much more drastic shaping than that of the hair and face. Beautycontestants' bodies are usually plumper and more curvaceous than fashion model bodies, andless top-heavy than the ideal for strippers. As women organizers and judges have becomemore common in pageantry, (more in line with today's audience, which is two-thirds female)the winning contestants have been looking more like fashion models and less like stripperseach year. The typical male and female pageant judge responses to a given figure area,like the bust line, illustrates how having a larger proportion of female judges thanformerly, can change the ideal:
What is the optimum cup size? June Wylie [swim- wear coordinator for Miss USA 1990], who has 27 years of pageant experience, feels it's "a nice rounded B." Dan Isaacson, fitness consultant to the stars and a [Miss USA] pageant judge this year, thinks on a larger scale, "The ideal pageant size is a 34 C."
Fortunately for beauty contestants, they can pad out to their preferred size, unlikestrippers, and are no longer required to get surgery or dangerous injections in order tolive up to the ideal. This was not always the case. Until the Fifties, Miss Americacontestants were disqualified if they padded their swimsuits, and the Miss USA/MissUniverse organization only lifted the padding ban in 1990. The first Miss USA to win underthese rules, Carole Gist, freely admitted to using padding in her strapless evening gownbecause the usual 5 pound weight loss, which excited contestants often have in pageantweek, made the gown loose enough it "would have fallen off" on stage.
The Miss USA/Miss Universe organization lifted the padding ban due to feministpressure. As anti-pageant advocates like Ann Simonton pointed out, underendowedcontestants felt they had to undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery in order to becompetitive. While only a few women did this when breast surgery was a high costproposition, the price has dropped considerably, and a growing number of Miss USAcontestants were opting for the surgeon's knife. Women within the established pageantstructure regarded this as a negative trend and were relieved at the rule change. BarbaraPeterson Burwell, Miss USA 1976, who was a judge in 1990, said: "What's great is thatpadding allows any woman to have the equal opportunity of participating in a beautycompetition." And Carolee Munger, Miss Alaska-USA's state director, took the viewthat, "If we take any steps to prevent a young woman from making a permanent decisionabout a one-night event, we're doing the right thing."
Unfortunately, while pageant women are very supportive of feminists' objections tocosmetic surgery, on average they have no sympathy for fatness. As more judges in pageantsare female, the trend towards skinnier, flatter contestants becomes more pronounced. Notsurprisingly this means that a high percentage of contestants develop eating disorders.Pageant people sometimes regard eating disorders as just yet another problem to beovercome on the road to perfection, not realizing that the pursuit of perfection oftenleads to the disorders. An article in Pageantry magazine celebrates the "triumphover" eating disorders experienced by Debra Linn Tingey before she went on to win theMiss Utah-USA 1990 title:
During this time Debra experienced the not unusual pressure to be beautiful and THIN...the pressures took the form of the eating disorders known as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. One evening, while performing...stress and lack of nourishment took its toll. Debra collapsed on stage. At the hospital, the cause was apparent... a mild cardiac arrest. This tragic event encouraged Debra to forget what "society" wanted her to look like and begin to rebuild her body.
Yet, obviously, she still does conform to what "society" wants her to looklike, or she wouldn't have won the state title. Her picture, which accompanies thearticle, shows a thin sculpted face and a long skinny neck. Even though she supposedly hasrecovered from her eating disorders, she is still striving to conform to the thin beautypageant image.
Pageant magazines, aware of the problems that beset their readers, are careful tostress weight loss through exercise and balanced (even hearty) eating. Most winningcontestants get "pageant perfect" bodies by spending hours each day"pumping iron"--the very antithesis of the old traditional image of beautyqueens as helpless little females. Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990, claims to have runand exercised six days a week for years to get the athletically slender body that won herthe swimsuit competition. The staple of how-to books and magazines on becoming a beautyqueen is exercise information, not dieting information, as in most modeling books. Thiscaution reflects a real concern in the pageant business with the problems of eatingdisorders among contestants, because the very goal that pageants strive for:self-perfection through self-control, is a goal that most women with eating disordersshare. Predictably, despite all the well-intentioned advice on controlling weight throughexercise, pageants foster eating disorders by reinforcing the notion of slender bodies assymbols of perfection. Lisa Davenport, Miss California 1985, admitted to falling prey tobulimia in her first pageants, but didn't see the connection between her problem and herwork in pageantry. On the contrary, like others in the pageant field, she considered thatthe Miss America program helped her overcome this problem:
When I filled out the application for Atlantic City, there was no real way for me to get to the real essence of who I was, and how I've come to be the young lady that I am, without discussing the bulimic issue, which I'd never really discussed before. (pause) Because it's not something I'm proud of. (pause) And I was afraid......to let people know that I may be.......a little less than perfect. When I first entered into...some of the pageants...I felt...uh...a tremendous pressure to (long pause) be thin, to be attractive, and felt that was how I'd be accepted. But what I'm saying is that because of the Miss America program and my experiences in it, it helped me overcome bulimia. It may have encouraged those things in the beginning, but in the long run it helped me get over it.
What Davenport chooses to ignore, is that while pageantry may have helped her overcomeher bulimia, she never would have got it in the first place if she hadn't participated inthose first pageants. Ann Simonton, predictably took a similar view of Davenport'sproblem;
When I first heard about Lisa Gayle Davenport talking about her bulimia experiences, I felt, "Wow! They've got something out of her that she must be really upset about. Because how can Miss America have made herself vomit? Whether she's doing it now, if she ever has, that's an image they won't want her to be representing. I also felt very proud of her for being able to talk about it. Because it's something that needs to come out. We need to understand the psychological and physical damage that's happening to women that are trying to be perfect, trying to emulate an ideal. [Emphasis mine]
While Simonton's views are sometimes extreme, they generally contain a lot of truth.Contestants do sometimes suffer in the pursuit of the ideal, and in a competition, theymay suffer even more for falling short of the ideal. A former pageant winner, LisaJohnson, Miss Maine 1984, and now a follower of Simonton, described what it was like tocompete and lose in Atlantic City:
The prelim nights and the nationals...what women would do is tape their breasts up, pad, so they'd look more voluptuous, larger, bigger than life. They would tape their buttocks up, starve themselves for the day so that they'd have absolutely no stomach. So I remember the night of the pageant. They were naming the top ten. We were tense. I didn't make it. They kind of cattled us off stage, just off stage. And the women threw up, they were crying hysterically, black makeup running down their faces, it was a horror show. It was horrible.
Certainly trying to live up to an ideal of beauty that requires starvation and ducttape for some to maintain is not healthy either physically or psychologically, yet manycontestants do these things. And a few go to the more dangerous extremes of dieting andsurgery. Yet these extremes are also practiced by women outside of the beauty field, andnot all contestants or winners need to or wish to go to such lengths in order to achievethe contest image. It is, however, another proof that beauty pageants are a form oftheatre and that the images of the contestants and winners are theatrical illusions, heldup by makeup and costuming for some, duct tape and dieting for others. No woman wakes upand gets out of bed looking as artificially perfect as a Miss America winner does, as shewalks down the runway in rhinestone tiara, hair sprayed coiffure, made-up face, and abeaded gown. The image is an illusion, created to represent and glorify the vague, prettycompromise image Americans see as the ideal American "girl". The T.V. viewingpublic never sees or imagines contestants vomiting in the wings, beyond camera range.
Besides the physical component of the beauty pageant ideal, there is now (in the MissAmerica Pageant, especially) a significant portion of the ideal concerned with thecontestants' other attributes. Back in 1923 the qualities judges looked for in AtlanticCity were "form, carriage, health, features, simplicity, character, personality,training, adaptability, and distinctiveness," none of them very assertive orthreatening qualities. The "adaptability" of a biddable nature was already acriteria even in the days before Miss Americas were subsequently hired by the pageantorganization to make appearances. As audiences have altered their ideal image of theperfect daughter from the early image of youthful innocence and sweetness to the presentimage of a striving, ambitious hard worker, the queens have changed, not only in reality,but most especially in the publicity used to describe them. Back in the Twenties, whenSamuel Gompers was describing Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921, as "the type ofwomanhood America needs---strong, red- blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities ofhomemaking and motherhood," nearly every person in America would have considered thisa perfect description of the ideal daughter. After nearly 70 years of change in the roleof women in America, however, the 1990 Miss America, Debbye Turner, was described as aperson who "appears to be the antithesis of the type of young woman who would enterpageant after pageant in search of that coveted rhinestone tiara....She is only a fewmonths away from earning a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree. And with sass, humor, andwit, she can articulate her views on almost any topic thrown at her." The indicationis that there was a change not only in the type of woman who would win a beauty pageant,but also in the way the winner was described to the public.
For a contestant to successfully compete now, at the national level, she must exerciseher ability to speak publicly and in interview situations. While pageant critics imaginethese interview questions don't "really encourage creative intelligence," thefact is, they do require considerable creative intelligence on the part of thecontestants. Since contestants know that they cannot possibly guess all the judges'different opinions and answer each person with the opinion they would most like to hear,they have to find an opinion of their own, and a way to state it in such a way as not tooffend anyone who disagrees with it. Like politicians, they have to find a method ofanswering that best displays their own knowledge, doesn't offend the voters, and yet doesnot sound weak, vague, or lacking in courage or compassion. Few Vice Presidents manage tolearn this, yet it must be admitted that most Miss Americas do.
This is why Miss Americas make thousands of dollars for personal appearances throughouttheir "reigns". For the rest of their year they are never seen in a swimsuitdisplaying the "perfect" body they have struggled to achieve. Instead, they makespeeches at store openings, public works projects, and special events. The quality thatMiss Americas sell to the organizers of these appearances is not sex, but the ability tomake whatever is being opened, started, or celebrated, to be seen as non-controversial yetpositive, strong yet tasteful, classy but not snobbish---in short, equivalent to the imageMiss Americas can generate for themselves. This aura cannot be generated by a beautifulfool. Despite the public image that many people have of beauty contest winners (forinstance, the feather-brained newswoman character, Corky Sherwood, in the T.V. show MurphyBrown), national winners train their brains the same way they shape their bodies on benchpresses. Debbye Turner "read every news journal I could get my hands on," astandard tactic of pageant contestants. The Beauty Pageant Manual recommends thatcontestants regularly read The New York Times' national and world sections, Time,and Newsweek from cover to cover, watch 60 MinutesToday, and GoodMorning, America and any news specials on particularly important current events, aswell as keep up with current information important to their local area as well. Anycontestant who has trouble digesting all this information is recommended to get a collegehistory teacher to be a "current events coach" and help the contestant to wadethrough this weekly pile of information. Contestants are also expected to study thehistory, famous landmarks, famous people, industry, and other high points of their localarea in order to be better spokeswomen for their states or towns. For internationalcompetition, a contestant is also advised to learn basic greetings and phrases in thelanguage spoken in the place where the pageant is to be held, the names of the keyofficials of that town and country, the outstanding current events and concerns of thelocal population, and information about the country's business, industry, food, andcustoms. If a contestant wants to be really prepared for her interview, there are bookssold with the hundreds of interview questions which are most likely to be asked. Awell-prepared contestant will think about each question and formulate an opinion beforethe interview so she doesn't waste interview time having to think over her reply. Many ofthese interview questions do in fact encourage creative intelligence:
If you could change one thing in your country what would it be?
If you were on a television talk show and could get only one message across to your listeners, what subject would it be on?
If you could choose to have any talent, what would it be and why?
How do you perceive the role and responsibilities of a beauty queen?
Give three events (positive or negative) that have influenced your life.
What is your philosophy of life?
What is your biggest fantasy?
Who would you like to be for one day and why?
Of course, like politicians, beauty contestants often give deliberately evasivereplies, because offending anyone will cost them votes. Still, winners are receiving moreencouragement to express their opinions than they were 30 years ago, when the Miss AmericaPageant chose Nancy Fleming as Miss America 1961:
Nancy Fleming not only refused to make a choice between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but soberly informed reporters that she was unable to decide for herself which was the better- looking.
The Miss America title now includes a "forum", as promoters put it. Thereigning title holder is expected to make public appearances addressing a public issue ofher choice. Debbye Turner's "platform" of "Motivating Youth toExcellence," in which she encouraged teens to strive beyond racial prejudice andsucceed in life, was not a particularly controversial one, but Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, MissAmerica 1988, decided to use her forum to educate the public about AIDS, which was, andis, a hotly debated subject, especially in the Bible Belt, where Miss America makes themajority of her appearances. A Miss America discussing a "social" diseasepublicly would have been impossible even twenty years before, and a Miss America actuallytouring the country encouraging the public to practice "safe sex" ismind-boggling, even now.
Not only national winners reflect the new ideals of assertive women mandated byaudience opinion. State winners who have come to Atlantic City as contestants recentlyalso have ambitious career and political goals, and are typically driven, goal-orientedwomen; Janet Ward Black, Miss North Carolina 1980, is now an assistant district attorney;Debra Cleveland Molskness, Miss South Dakota 1984, is now an engineer testing fighterplanes for MacDonald Douglas; Charmaine Kowalski, M.D., Miss Pennsylvania 1978, is chiefresident in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Hospital; and Kristi ReindlVetri, Miss Maryland 1973, won the Mayoral race for her home town, O'Fallon, Illinois,while she was still in Law School. If the American public continues increasingly tosupport women's rights, and idealize beautiful, ambitious women, the Miss Americacompetition will eventually produce the first popular choice for the Presidency who looksgood in a swimsuit. While this sounds like a ridiculous concept, it is, in fact, thedirection in which Miss America is heading. It is also the direction American politics hasbeen heading, in demanding a more and more flawless "image" for candidates.
In fact Miss America is "ahead" of the politicians in this respect. MissAmerica contestants now typically are intelligent, talented women who have altered theirappearance through exercise, dieting, cosmetics, and sometimes even surgery to create theperfect doll-like image;
Contestants have had their ears pinned, their upper lids enlarged, buttocks tucked, cheeks and chins implanted, and eyes widened. Does cosmetic surgery constitute cheating for a pageant aspirant? Dr. Billie says No: "It's easier to take an extremely talented girl and do a thirty minute nasal operation than take a flawlessly beautiful girl and teach her to sing or play piano." With the basic externals pulled, pushed, and sutured into place, contestants can turn their attention to saying and doing the right thing... And with talent and interview comprising 70% of the points awarded by judges, saying and doing the right thing is what lets one tucked, sutured woman win out over another.
Anna Stanley in The Crowning Touch; Preparing for Beauty Competition (1989)gives twelve pages to the interview, as compared to four pages to swimsuit competition inher chapter on "Major Areas of Competition." Stanley asserts:
The most important category in any pageant is the interview. It is the opportunity for the judges to evaluate personality and general awareness. Pageants are won and lost in the interview. A girl can be an idiot and photogenic, but a beauty queen must be intelligent.
Karen Kemple notes, "If you are in a close race with another, the girls who hasthe better interview will probably win." While interview does count for the mostpoints, physical beauty still counts for more than many feminists would like. Afteranti-pageant demonstrator Michelle Anderson won the title of Miss Santa Cruz County 1988,she competed in the Miss California contest in order to unfurl a banner reading"Pageants Hurt All Women," live, on television, just before the new MissCalifornia was to be crowned. Her pageant experience shows how far pageants will have togo before they begin to promote a completely liberated ideal:
People always think of pageant queens as being extremely beautiful. Actually they aren't. I'm a good example; I'm not commercially beautiful, but I learned how to play their little game...With the help of heavy make-up to cover my acne scars, enough hair spray to defy gravity for four hours, tape to hold up my boobs, and spray adhesive to hold down my swimsuit. Being transformed into a beauty queen made absolutely clear how artificial and dangerous and self- denying that beauty standard really is. In order to win I not only had to transform my appearance, but also my attitude. I was told I was too masculine, too aggressive, too assertive, that people were intimidated by me, "even judges, even men."
Until the general American public sees this kind of image manipulation as undesirable,Miss America contestants will continue to be judged as a compromise choice, a"composite" of brains and beauty, an attractively packaged soft-sell for thealmost-liberated woman. This is the modern image of a beauty queen. Her externalappearance may be based on the image of a Barbie doll, but a "perfect" modernwoman, as most Americans see it, including pageant judges and audiences, is also informed,intelligent, talented, and assertive, in addition to the old apple pie qualities ofkindness, compassion, humor, and congeniality. With this huge list of idealcharacteristics, it is amazing that they ever have found candidates capable (or willing)to live up to the ideal for a whole year.
Year after year, thousands of women try to match the ideal and win "beauty"titles. Few out of the thousands of women who try actually win, and each level of thecompetition weeds out more "rejects," a sometimes painful process for the womenthemselves. Still, the process does promote to the top those women who are most dedicatedto the ideal. This gives pageants an advantage over less strenuous and moresurface-oriented forms of theatre such as fashion shows and strip shows, in havingperformers who often do closely resemble their ideal image. However, even beautycontestants will freely admit to being performers. They "train" like athletesfor the perfect body and the perfectly informed mind. They use "tricks" likeVaseline on their teeth (to make them glitter), and Preparation-H on their eyebags (toshrink them). They buy or make costumes for each of the areas of competition (like figuremolding "pageant" swimsuits) in order to shape their image. They perform"talent" presentations of singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument,that they have practiced for months to perfect. They even rehearse interviewing beforevideo cameras in order to improve their interview style, all things that they would not bedoing if they were not competing, and performing in a beauty contest.
Even the act of winning is something that some contestants think requires aperformance:
One of the young queens inquired of the other how she felt at the moment she realized she had won. The second replied that she felt no emotion whatsoever, neither elation, gratitude, nor surprise, because she was completely preoccupied with trying to remember exactly what motions her predecessor had made at this point the year before---That is, how she cocked her head to receive the crown, how she reached for the roses, and to what extent she smiled and nodded thanks.
All this concentration on the image would not be necessary if the image were not anartificial one which requires theatrical methods like rehearsals, costumes, music, makeup,etc. to support it. Again, pageants, like strip shows and fashion shows, are theatricalrepresentations of an ideal, not a literal reflection of the reality of the performers.Performers bend their own reality by artifice to create an image of an ideal, whilepageants celebrate that ideal through a theatrical production.
Conclusions on the Ideal of the Performer
Each of the three forms of theatre that form the topic of this study, fashion shows,strip shows, and beauty pageants, are forms that showcase an ideal of womankind throughtheatrical methods. The performers who enact the ideals are not perfect examples of theideals themselves, but are normal imperfect human beings who can perform in such a way asto represent the ideal. Using costuming, makeup, body-shaping through diet, surgery, andexercise they approximate the external physical images of the ideals. Through gesture,body language, and in some cases, speech, singing, and dance, they enact the internalpsychological image of the ideal. Fashion models represent a desexualized, healthy,striving, young, upper-middle class image through upper- middle class body language, realyouth, thinness and an assertive walk. Strippers usually create an aggressively sexualizedideal image through "sophisticated" costuming, aggressive body language,bust-centered dance movements, curvaceous bodies, suggestive songs and props, andseductive removal of clothing. Beauty queens invest themselves with the image ofconformity, ambition, striving for perfection, health, talent, intelligence, and beauty,by guarding their tongues, practicing likely interview questions, training like athletes,practicing like musical performers, altering their appearance through makeup, padding,surgery, dieting, or exercise, and "cramming" all necessary information. None ofthese performers comes ready-made, like Venus on the half shell, being an ideal of amodel, a stripper, or a beauty queen. All require at least minimal training in thetheatrical methods used to promote these ideals. The next chapter will describe the effectthat runways have had on the staging of these performances of "ideal" womanhood:What the staging was like before runways, how staging changed by being performed on arunway, and how runways effect the result of the performance.
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