Pageantry

The woman who is coordinating the local Junior Miss pageant is in our ward and, since we are known ward intellectuals, she asked my wife to do her a favor: she needs hard questions to ask the girls for their question and answer section. She turned to the intellectuals in the area (which is hilarious, since our ward is populated with college professors) and asked us to come up with questions that would challenge the girls. My wife explained all this to me last night by way of apology for suddenly being caught up in a pageant.

I haven’t watched the Miss America/USA/Universe pageants in years, nor have I attended local pageants. At a parade a couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law noted that the difference between the dresses of the pageant winners we saw driving by was that the queen got the dress with the spaghetti straps and the low back and her attendants looked to be in hastily ordered bridesmaids dresses. At the Ephraim parade I attended several weeks ago, half of the attending pageant parties were in the backs of pickup trucks. I often find myself on the third floor of the Wilkinson Center, walking past all those homecoming queens. I am curious about the role of women’s pageants in Mormon society. Do they mean something different amongst us than they do among the wider Gentile audience?

As I see it, a pageant is meant to give us a model of “the complete woman” (ie. the impossible ideal). As such, she should be physically attractive, witty, intelligent, compassionate, wildly talented, and gracious. The goal of the pageant is to find the girl who most completely fulfills this ideal. For that matter, the goal of pageants seems to be to indicate that anyone can be witty, intelligent, compassionate, wildly talented, and gracious, so we should focus on deciding which of those girls is the most attractive (there are more aspects of the competitions that are based on looks than on those other equally desirable traits). This seems like a construction of the “ideal woman” from a completely male perspective to me. Admittedly, I think that the impossible ideal for men is remarkably similar, perhaps only replacing gracious with something like “able to kill a cougar with bare hands.” Setting aside the ethics of having an impossible ideal, do women’s pageants really establish what we want today in the opposite sex? In our own sex?

Okay, now let’s take up the impossible ideal. I heard a story on the radio once about chickens and the photographers who take pictures of them. There is a standard of appearance for chickens. Certain photographers have a reputation of taking pictures of chickens that gets those chickens to look much more like that standard than otherwise might be the case. It is widely acknowledged that the standard is unlikely to occur in any one chicken, but that the chickens that get closest will sell for more on the market. Now this is probably okay amongst chickens. They aren’t even aware of being judged superior or inferior based on some arbitrary standard developed by someone else. But amongst humans, we understand that those standards are standards because all our peers accept them and that this means that it determines what our peers think of us (to some degree). If we don’t live up to some ideal, whatever it me be, we feel the loss. Even if the impossible ideal is essentially arbitrary, our failure to live up to it can make us feel guilty and inferior. At the same time, other people argue that, unlike chickens, humans have the ability to change themselves. So setting an impossible ideal as a goal, while impossible to achieve, can make us better for all our trying. So, today’s third question is: are impossible ideals worth the trouble?

Getting to women’s pageants, instead of chicken judging, my wife and I still have to some up with the questions that our local girls will be asked. We decided that the questions shouldn’t be impossible (ie. How would you, personally, establish peace in the Middle East?), but that they should be challenging. We wanted to ask questions that would take the girls out of their comfort zone, but which would be realistically answerable by a 17-year-old. Also, we wanted to give them questions that would allow them to discuss their own future and their goals (scholarships are at stake, you know). So, here are the questions we have thus far come up with. Please critique and suggest your own (we aren’t the only ones coming up with questions, but we probably want to suggest more than five).

1. What one thing could you do to make the world substantially better and how would it help?
2. If you met a poor mother from the other side of the world who was roughly your age, what would you talk about?
3. What one novel would you like the next generation to read? Why?
4. To whom, besides your parents, do you owe your greatest debt of gratitude and what do plan to do to repay that debt?
5. Which person in history do you most admire? How does your view of this person affect your behavior and your plans for the future?

Please answer any of the above questions or suggest your own.

Comments

  1. I think honest answers in beauty pageants are often far and few between. The contestants are there to win so why would they shoot themselves in the foot for revealing honest opinions to a question(s) they may be indifferent to?

    BTW, Q2 is really good. Alas, I could see a kid thinking to herself, “Why would I even bother?”.

    Two cents.

  2. Moving from Las Vegas to Highland, UT, the biggest culture shock by far has been finding that pageants are still socially acceptable here. Every little town in UT county has a pageant, promoted or advertised by the town itself. There are rodeo queens and junior miss pageants, Miss Timpanogas, little junior miss pageants… It’s like going back in time 50 years, which I guess culturally, is not too far off. In Las Vegas (which I am by no means holding up as a model for a healthy culture – heavens no), participation in pageants seemed to by relegated to a very strange sub-culture of people, and parents who involved their children were generally viewed as backwards, superficial stereotypical pageant moms/dads. Here it seems much more acceptable.

    I wrote a letter to the editor right after we got here, I was so disturbed by the government sponsored promotion of pageants and beauty contests for little girls. That year, on the city’s list of committees and volunteers needed, they wanted five people to serve on a cultural arts committee, and TWENTY-SIX people to serve on various pageant related committees. Disturbing.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    Would it be too snarky to have questions related directly to the problems pageants pose related to feminism? I’m thinking anything about body image, eating disorders, beauty culture, etc.

  4. Three words:

    Little

    Miss

    Sunshine

  5. I think asking questions that are too topical aren’t helpful; this is a pageant, not a debate and I think the purpose of the questions is to give the girls a chance to impress the judges with their future potential. This is why we geared all the questions to the future.

    Julie, I would love that. I just need to find a way to phrase it that isn’t leading or too confrontational. Any suggestions?

  6. A female friend of mine was talked into helping our Stake President’s daughter compete in a local (UT) pageant a few years ago. When they began duct-taping the girl’s breasts (cheaper and easier to get the proper “look” than a strapless bra) she had her fill of the whole mess. Truly amazing.

  7. Julie M. Smith says:

    Hmmm.

    What could a Junior Miss do to help younger girls avoid our culture’s focus on beauty?

    What do you think can be done to reduce eating disorders?

    Do you consider your self a feminist? Why or why not?

    Do you think pageants set a poor example for younger girls?

    What do you think can be done to reduce our society’s focus on beauty and appearance?

    OK, these all sound faintly nutters. But I guess that’s how I feel about pageants, so there you go.

  8. I have to agree with Julie, I think the best question to put them on the spot would be something like “There are plenty of people that think that beauty pagents objectify women, add to eating disorder problems, put undue emphasis on looks and negatively effect self esteem of girls who might not be thin or beautiful, and are petty. How do you defend your involvment in one?”

    Of course that’d be a bit mean. But still I’d love to see the look on their face when it was asked. If you need inspiration for questions go and watch “Drop Dead Gorgeous”.

  9. I mean pagents are petty not the girls. D’oh.

  10. Well, I am trying to give them the opportunity to think and prove their excellence; I don’t want to make them cry.

    Let us suppose, for a moment, that it is possible for a pageant to be a good thing. What sort of questions would you ask?

    As for Julie’s questions, they still strike me as too controversial and topical. How about:
    As Junior Miss [some-city-Utah], you would be held up as a model for other girls your age and younger. Do you believe that you should be given this responsibility? Why?

  11. I also dislike pageants, for all of the reasons expressed by others. However, given their existence, I also would focus on making them as much of a positive and educational event as possible.

    Re: the original list: I think 1, 3 and 5 are too open to coaching and memorized response. I REALLY like #2. I like the focus of #4, but I might say, “To what person, besides someone you know personally and besides a religious figure, do you owe your greatest debt of gratitude and what do you plan to do to repay that debt?” That might take away the obvious memorized answers, make them think and highlight those who have thought on a broader scale than the obvious and easy.

    Re: Julie’s list: I like “What do you think can be done to reduce our society’s focus on beauty and appearance?” I would change one of them to “What kind of example do you think pageants set for younger girls?” (The original question is too leading.)

    I like ronito’s statment (“There are plenty of people . . . and are petty.”), but I would suggest the question be, “How would you respond to people who say this?”

    Finally, a suggestion of my own: “Which of your fellow contestants has made the most positive impact on your community – and how did they do so?” I think you might see a consensus that should influence the final decision.

  12. You could ask something like:

    What do you think is a challenge for a lot of young women in today’s society, and how would you be a roll model in respect to that challenge?

    (Could definitely be worded better.)

  13. Sorry; I forgot to state explicitly that I think the most important thing you should do is eliminate as much as possible questions that can be anticipated and coached, followed closely by questions that focus on prior actions – not just future, theoretical actions.

    Taking Susan’s question in this light, I might change it to ask, “What do you think is the biggest challenge young women face in this particular town? Why do you think it is a challenge, and what have you done to address it?”

  14. What are some of the destructive side-effects of our cultures obsession with physical beauty in women, and what can you do to address those side-effects?

    In the future, if you had a daughter who was 14, pretty and a little bit overweight that wanted to follow in your footsteps by participating in pageants, what would you tell her?

    People watching this pageant have had a chance to learn a great deal about you and your personality, and might feel like they have a personal relationship with you. Could you describe your experience when these people that you’ve never met speak to you as if they knew you?

    Has there ever been a time that someone has encouraged you to hold back some part of your personality or interests in favor of something that would make you look more attractive? If so, how has that experience impacted your life?

    The TV show “Beauty and the Geek” paired young beautiful women who tended to rely on their looks to get what they wanted with socially awkward but very intelligent men to see if each group could learn something useful from the other. What are some lessons you think you could help a geeky young man learn that would benefit him, and what are some lessons you think he might be able to help you learn to your benefit?

    Looking at all of the time, talent, effort and money that is spent on pageants, what would you say to those who would argue that those resources could be better spent addressing things like hunger, disease and poverty.

    How do you think the spread of HIV throughout the world, particularly in places where efforts to stem its spread are thwarted by cultural forces, is going to impact the demographics of the world over the next few decades?

    Tell me about a time you found yourself in an intercultural situation that you were unprepared for and how you handled it.

  15. Oops. Those questions were assuming a higher-level pageant than you’re in, with older girls, so lots of them won’t fit. Sorry.

    [ot -- I hate the new interface -- it forgets who I am, so I have to refill all the boxes again, and that's just not cool]

  16. A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning he doesn’t even try.

    ______________________________________

    You know what? F*** beauty contests. Life is one f***ing beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work… F*** that. You do what you love, and f*** the rest

    _____________________________________

    Pageant Official Jenkins: What is your daughter doing?
    Richard: She’s kickin’ a$$… that’s what she’s doing.

    [edited because veritas ran out of one asterisks in one case]

  17. The questions seem good enough.

    As for pageants, I think we could do without them.

    And BYUSA elections too, which are essentially the same thing.

  18. 1. Did Tony die?
    2. The lady or the tiger?

  19. 3. Should MLB honor Barry Bonds for breaking a record that he may or may not have achieved using performance-enhancing drugs?

  20. 4. What’s the last book you read for pleasure? (I use this one in job interviews)

  21. 5. Even though I’m married, I think you are totally hot. If I told you that it would influence the outcome, would you go out with me? ;)

  22. FHL, Thanks for the laugh. I needed it tonight!

  23. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Slightly OT:

    So, today’s third question is: are impossible ideals worth the trouble?

    Interesting question coming from an LDS person who, in theory anyway, believes we’re on earth to become like God. :)

  24. Thanks, PDoE. I was hoping someone would pick up on that and start talking about it. Oh well…

  25. “Let us suppose, for a moment, that it is possible for a pageant to be a good thing.”

    I simply don’t see how. “Let’s judge you based on superficial and unimportant qualities which are mostly genetic traits, unearned, and over which you have little to no control. Let’s parade your flesh in front of a large audience and a panel of judges who know nothing about your character or choices, and who will judge your flesh to be either worthy or lacking.”

    Honestly, I wouldn’t show my cats, because the judges can’t possibly know their inner beauty. I would never, ever show my daughters.

    It’s as though the rapist, after the rape, gives the victim a score based on how pleasing the experience was to him, and as though she earnestly hopes her score will be high.

  26. Kristine says:

    Whoa, Tatiana, I was with you until the last sentence, which I think is needlessly inflammatory.

    Still, put me in the camp of people who find it utterly impossible to find pageants anything but absolutely abhorrent. I believe they are something no Latter-day Saint should be involved with in any way.

  27. I don’t know; I’m no fan of pagents, but they don’t seem significantly more pernicious than reality TV, which also uses some surface-level criterion (whether it be physical appearance, physical ability, decorating or haircutting or cooking or dancing ability, or whatever) to judge people, without getting to know their inner beauty. Or, frankly, the NBA finals. Maybe there is something more pernicious about the sole criterion being appearance, as opposed to something else, but I don’t find anything inherently wrong with being judged based on a limited number of preconceived criteria.

    That said, how about a question to the effect of, Your best friend just took third in [the pagent, her piano competition, or whatever], for which (s)he’s been singlemindedly training for the last X months. How do you help your friend see her/his full worth in spite of the loss? (‘Cause it seems a little on the mean side to say, You took third; how do you maintain your self-esteem.)

  28. I do believe in preaching an impossible ideal for which we should strive, as long as it is coupled with an understanding that’s it’s OK to not be able to reach it. The ideal itself often is what inspires us to do and become what we wouldn’t do and become otherwise. (One of my favorite songs is “The Impossible Dream”, and one of my favorite books is Don Quixote.)

    Having said that, preaching an impossible physical ideal based almost solely on a subjective and cultural standard of beauty – nope, I don’t like that. I have four daughters, and I hope they NEVER want to enter a beauty pageant.

  29. Kristine, you’re right that my last sentence was inflammatory, but I couldn’t think of any other way to get across in a visceral way the utter debasing humiliation of the whole experience. Can you think of a less inflammatory metaphor that brings the idea home?

  30. Tatiana,
    If nothing else, these young girls choose to participate in these pageants, while those raped do not. It is in the spirit of trying to make the choices of those young girls less repulsive to themselves and others that my wife and I got involved. I agree that there is too much emphasis in these pageants (and in the rest of life) on mercurial standards of beauty (I keep walking by those homecoming queens after all). Asking substantive questions was an attempt to get at the whole girl (not that it worked, of course, I’ll get more into that later).

    In all honesty, if my daughter wanted to participate in a pageant, I would support her in it 100%. But if she did not, I would be very, very happy. I’ll say more on all this tomorrow.

  31. CS Eric says:

    There are many reasons to enter a pageant. When I was at BYU, a sister in my ward who had absolutely NO chance at winning entered one of the pageants on campus. It wasn’t just that she was only moderately attractive (to be generous), she also had no talent to speak of, and was not well spoken. She didn’t have a dressy dress–she just wore one of her Sunday outfits. I don’t think there was a swimsuit portion of the contest, but if there were, she would not have done well there either.

    So why did she enter? Somewhere she had decided that she was too shy and had spent too long hiding in her shell, and that she needed to do something to help break out of that shell. Even though she did not win, she could always tell herself that she had participated in a pageant.

    I continue to admire her for her courage to step out of her comfort zone. I have long since forgotten her name, but I will never forget her excitement when she came off the stage saying “I did it, I did it! I tried out for the pageant!”

  32. After reading all of the comments here, I am a little embarrassed to say that we put my youngest daughter on a plane yesterday to fly to Mobile, to participate in “America’s Junior Miss” program.

    First let me say that the Junior Miss program is not a beauty contest, but mostly a scholarship program for girls that push themselves to excel in academics and talent.

    I am sure there are parents out there that push their daughters to compete in pageants, but this was entirely up to my daughter, I never encouraged her to do this.

    My oldest daughter won the title of Junior Miss in this little town we live in, but did not win the title for the state. She said it gave her a lot of confidence and was glad she did it.

    Anyway, just the other side of this coin for whatever it is worth. :)

    You can see the girls at the link below and read about the program in the home page.

    http://www.ajm.org/about/contestants/

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