Beauty pagents and politics

It seems intuitive that beauty pageants should be distinct from politics–that we should judge our next leaders by more than appearance. Yet, more and more, young people are using pageants as springboards into the world of politics. An article in New Statesman looks at this phenomenon:

It is becoming increasingly common for women in America to use beauty pageants as the springboard for a political career. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, blazed this trail (she famously came in third in the Miss Alaska pageant in 1984) but many are following in her footsteps. Miss Vermont 2010, Caroline Bright, lost an election for the state senate in 2012 by fewer than 500 votes. Miss Arkansas 1994, Beth Ann Rankin, nearly managed to unseat the then incumbent Democrat, Mike Ross, in Arkansas’s fourth congressional district in 2010. Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000, is being considered to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell for his Kentucky seat, which is thought to be vulnerable to challenge in November.

Granted, this record shows that pageantry is more than just a “pretty face,” but it’s not exactly the most introspective [1] atmosphere to foster political growth. Platforms aside, the rest of the competition centers on creating negative body images for the rest of the female population. What does that say about our political system? We are so focused on the way our politicians look that we often ignore their messages.

The pageant system didn’t intersect with politics at all until 1989, when the Miss America Organisation introduced the concept it calls “the platform”. Since then, contestants have been required to present a topic about which they care deeply; they are then judged on their passion and knowledge of it. If they win, they spend the year campaigning on that issue.

Is there any question as to whether pageantry and politics should intersect? Beverly Stoeltje, professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University, believes it can be somewhat justified under our natural need for order and hierarchies.

[She] says that although American culture was founded on the rational principles of a republic, that left a yearning for something of the Old World. “We have these pageants, which crown these queens. In this culture, since we don’t have monarchs, we create them.”…What’s more, Stoeltje observes, pageants, like politics, tap in to a competitiveness that is innate in the American cultural psyche. “I would argue that the pageant is a space of contestation . . . Pageants’ role today is to reflect the advances of women in society, that women can be empowered – but to say that women should continue to be seductive, and to be governed by the powers that be, who are generally male.”

Others even argue that the intersection is beneficial for the contestants.

Hilary Levey Friedman, a Harvard socio­logist who studies beauty and competition, is writing a book about pageants’ role in American society. She argues that the changing nature of pageants is creating a new class of winners who will go into politics, “especially with the way the political system works these days.”

“Contestants and winners are developing particular skills that are transferable to the political arena,” Levey Friedman notes. “You can develop them elsewhere as well, but there’s an argument to be made that you can develop them more quickly and at an earlier age because you participate in Miss America.”

I can accept that it’s important to overcome fear of public speaking at a young age, important to advocate for social change, and important to develop people skills. What I cannot accept is that beauty pageants are the means to enter politics. Perhaps pageantry is a sort of diluted form of politics, but honestly, politics should not be pageantry.


[Featured image: Carolyn Bright, Miss Vermont 2010, who ran for Vermont Senate in 2012]