Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Is there a better way to scholarship and opportunity than beauty?

I am the type of feminist that believes women should be allowed to do whatever they want, and society (men, women, law, and policy) should support that choice. If you want to run a fortune 500 company, stay home and raise children, serve in combat, build skyscrapers, write computer code, fly to space, or whatever else you can dream of, then you should be supported in doing it. To me, feminism is about the sexes being viewed as equal. Women and men should have equal opportunity. Yet, there is something about beauty pageants that I find unsettling, even it is a “choice” that some women make. It evokes what my partner lovingly calls my “inner feminist rage”.

Something about an industry that objectifies women seems problematic to me. Beauty pageants send the message that the contestants are special only because they are beautiful. It emphasizes beauty above brains, and an unrealistic view of beauty at that. The women that compete are highly manicured and all rail thin. It’s a bad message to send to our young girls. Beauty is certainly more than that. Most women don’t look like beauty pageant contestants, and it can be damaging to send a message to women that this is the standard.

Now sure, there is a “talent” portion where the contestants demonstrate their skills, and a Q&A round for the contestants to demonstrate their eloquence, but the focus is on how the contestant looks. The women are judged mostly for their appearance in a bathing suit and an evening gown. The other portions are an afterthought.

I have read stories like this, that suggest women today are making the “choice” to compete in beauty pageants and feminists should support that choice. Kiara Imani Williams is a law student that says she competes in beauty pageants because “quite simply, [she] likes them.” She claims to like playing dress up, putting on making, and performing. But, as you dig deeper, it seems that what she actually likes is
…being put in a position where I can mentor young girls and talk about the importance of education. I fully believe that pageants have the incredible potential to provide access to education, leadership training, and public relations skills to many young woman.
Ah, and there it is, the educational component that arguably keeps pageants in business. Beauty pageants are regularly defended because of the scholarship and opportunities they provide to young women. John Oliver did a hilarious parody on the Miss America pageant, questioning how, in 2015, this can still be a thing. He noted that the Miss America organization touts that it is the largest scholarship program in the world for women. Miss America claims that it “makes 45 million dollars available annually”, but in reality, last year they gave out just $500,000 in scholarship money. If indeed that is the largest scholarship for women in the world, that is just embarrassing for society.

As Taylor Marsh said in her defense of beauty pageants, she competed because it helped to pay her college tuition so that she could fulfill her dreams. It was a way out of the poverty she was born in to. A fine point, but wouldn’t it be better for society if instead of giving her money because she is pretty, so that she can attend college and become an author, we just gave her money to attend college because she was driven and smart? 

There has to be a better way to give women opportunities than having them parade around half naked on a stage. I want to support these women’s choice to partake in pageantry, but I also believe that if given the choice to obtain scholarship and opportunities without having to flaunt their beauty, this nonsense would end.

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