Beauty pageant with a twist



Many feminists may view beauty pageants with a critical eye. But the BBC here reports on a pageant, in Angola, for survivors of exploding landmines left after decades of civil war (see here for more information). 

The project is aims both to raise awareness of the problem of landimes, and to promote a wider range of bodies as beautiful (see here):

(in no particular order)

* Female pride and empowerment.

* Disabled pride and empowerment.

* Global and local landmine awareness and information.

* Challenge inferiority and/or guilt complexes that hinder creativity-
historical, cultural, social, personal, African, European.

* Question established concepts of physical perfection.

* Challenge old and ingrown concepts of cultural cooperation.

* Celebrate true beauty.

* Replace the passive term ‘Victim’ with the active term ‘Survivor’

Looks like an interesting subversion of the traditional beauty pageant, and there are further plans for a similar project in Cambodia.

Though for an alternative take, see here.

9 thoughts on “Beauty pageant with a twist

  1. I’m trying to remember why it is criticized. I think that if the reason is that it’s supposed to someone bring in conventional values, that seems very wrong. And in fact looking at the various people is quite a wonderful experience, since one is invited to find beauty in them and it is quite easy to do.

  2. The criticisms have to do with how outsiders (Norwegians) instituted this beauty contest in which the African women appear to be mere pawns, fulfilling some sort of outsider-imposed image of “beauty” so as to provide them with an outsider-approved notion of value and fulfilment. So part of the charge has to do with racism, and Eurocentrism, and also with the lack of any interrogation of the actual sources of the problems in the first place (landmines) or of oppositional stances that do not pursue such conventional avenues–oppositional stances that would involve more empowerment for the women. The criticisms strike me as fairly convincing, actually, although the pages I’ve read (the one you linked to and others) seem to continue to “speak for” the women rather than asking anything or providing any information or insight into how some of the participating women view their own participatioin. IN other words there’s a false consciousness analysis being applied, with little questioning of what such models say about the people who have the false consciousness.

  3. There’s an interview with the Norwegian organiser, Morten Traavik here, which is interesting:

    I also first heard about it on the world service, so there’ll be a link to the interview with him at too I’d think.

    Having read these, some of the concerns about racism and eurocentirism might be allayed; he makes clear that he took his lead from the pageants he saw there:

    ‘The Miss Landmine project was born in my head about three and a half years ago, when I visited Angola for the first time. Landmines were a very tangible, almost physically oppressive feeling for me when I there in 2003, because the very long civil war had just ended the year before. There were still very strong restrictions as to where one could move outside of the big cities because the whole countryside was, and is still, littered with landmines.

    Another strong but contrasting impression was attending a beauty pageant that the street kids in the back alley behind my ex-father-in-law’s house had put together on New Year’s Eve. It struck me as being so different from all the sleaze and the commercialism and the sexism that we, in our western culture, associate with those kinds of pageants.

    On the contrary, it was a feel-good experience; it was more like a street party with all the neighborhood attending. The kids organized everything themselves, with girls from seven to 17 parading up and forth, and going through all the regular motions of a beauty contest with great earnestness and dedication.

    That being said, it wasn’t really that serious – it wasn’t like the movie Little Miss Sunshine. It was a far cry from that; it was very inclusive and a much more heartwarming experience that was less based on physical perfection.

    As a director and actor of theater and film to start with, willingly or unwillingly I have my sensibilities open to impressions that might result in some ideas for future projects. When I was approached by an art festival that was to take place in Angola’s capital, Luanda, I quite quickly came up with the idea of trying to merge those two impressions.’

    It’s worth reading the whole interview, but I’ll highlight some other snippets:

    ‘For those women taking part, I really try to avoid speaking too much on their behalf…’ he also goes on to confirm that:

    ‘it’s also a job that they are doing to promote their own situation and awareness of landmine and disability issues. ‘

    ‘I see beautiful women who are proud, dignified and comfortable with who they are. … And that strong, feel-good factor is all the while undermined by the tragic and quite horrible back-stories of mutilation and war that inevitable stays with a landmine survivor. It is a picture of ambiguity, but where the forces of life prevail. ‘

    As you say, Calypso, it would be good to hear from the women who took part about their experiences of it too! My online searches haven’t brought anything up.

  4. One could worry that the critical discussion of the whole thing in the west is liable to be full of western and colonialist assumptions. It is hard to tell from far away whether something is a sign of exploitation, an act of appropriation of the mechanisms of exploitation, or something else whose context is so different that its meaning is also. I take it you are suggesting the third, stoat.

    Following this line of thought, I’m not sure we should particularly want to see the women’s words on the internet. Obviously, the internet can have an empowering effect – see the link in our blog roll for examples of efforts to bring blogging to voices of the developing world – but somehow the idea that public speech is more data for our judgment of their autonomy leaves me uneasy.

  5. One of the things that makes me uneasy about this is the fact that it’s still a competition about beauty. Even if it questions established (particular) concepts of physical perfection, it isn’t questioning the (general) concept of physical perfection itself: it’s still defining success for women in terms of looks.

    Given that, I don’t care so much whether it’s men or women or Europeans or Africans who’ve decided what the relevant concepts of perfection will be!

  6. Heg, I think you raise a very important question and I’ve gone back and forth on whether you are right about its defining success in terms of looks.

    Two related worries: one is that it and other ‘disability’ contests might not really be about what their ‘non-disabled’ form is. Or even ‘senior’ contests. If you have a race for 80 year olds, it may not be as much about speed – or even winning – as the ‘normal’ ones are.

    Secondly, winning on looks in the landmine case may have quite different effects from winning a ‘normal’ beauty contest. Like the race for 80 year olds, it might be more about courage, surviving and self-acceptance of one’s public presence, and this might show up in what ways it makes one enviable.

    NOT that I know this is so, but it’s why I’m not immediately agreeing with you.

  7. Nothing like a beauty pageant to build someone’s self esteem. Now those survivors who weren’t ‘pretty’ enough to quality for the contest get introduced to whole new dimension of self consciousness.

  8. It’s great to know that there are things running to keep women from feeling depressed after being a victim of landmines.

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