What is your take about Beauty pageants - Can it ever be empowering?.
Beauty pageants have long been a contested part of our culture: some see them as a hangover from a far more patriarchal era, while others defend them for helping women of all ages to feel more confident and to know their self-worth. It’s a debate raised in new film, Misbehaviour.
The British film, which is released in the UK on Friday, tells the story of the infamous 1970 Miss World contest from the dual perspectives of Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who earned a historic victory, and the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, led by Keira Knightley’s Sally Alexander, who famously protested against the competition.
The film offers up a nuanced portrayal of all the key players: beauty contestants, feminists, contest organisers, and even host Bob Hope and his wife Dolores, are given space to reveal their motivations and differing opinions on the Miss World institution, gender equality and intersectional feminism. At its core, Misbehaviour asks: are pageants inherently misogynist or toxic, or can they ever be empowering?
It’s a knotty question explored, to varying degrees, in the numerous films about pageants and their contestants that have been made, stretching back to the early days of cinema history.
Women as window dressing
Certainly, the very early movies about pageants hardly showed them in a good light. One of the first films on the subject, Frank Tuttle’s 1926 silent picture The American Venus, saw Miss America herself, Fay Lanphier, land the titular role. The film, one of the first to use Technicolor, follows a PR man hoping to promote a cosmetic business by getting the owner’s daughter to win a beauty pageant. The now-lost movie proved popular and remained in theatres for two years. Clips online reveal some of the title cards used, which detail the body measurements of the Venus de Milo, the ancient Greek statue long considered to be the ideal of womanhood, and offer such quotes as, “an eye feast of beautiful women and luxurious settings” and “a galaxy of gorgeous girls”. According to critics at the time, the movie objectified the female body as much as pageants do.
“Women’s legs, backs, sides and abdomens as low as below the navel, are shown aplenty,” wrote one perturbed critic in the trade journal Harrison’s Report. “Many of the tinted scenes of the fashion revue were very daring in their exposure of the Atlantic City bathing girls,” commented another in the Washington Herald. “One scene in particular elicited gasps from the crowd, which we couldn't tell whether from horror or admiration.”
The American Venus was clearly a film of its time, with female characters serving as window dressing for the machinations of male characters, as was the case for most subsequent pageant films. Hear Me Well, a 1957 film directed by Don Maguire, is about a conman who tries to rig the Miss World Wide Beauty contest by entering his girlfriend. The Beauty Jungle, a Pygmalion-esque story about a journalist who persuades a typist to become a professional pageant competitor, was released a few years later, in 1964. Val Guest's British comedy was supposed to be a satirical expose of the corrupt pageant industry, but the film itself perpetuated a negative view of women by having Janette Scott's protagonist try to sleep her way to victory and showing the other female contestants in bitter conflict, calling each other names like "you bandy-legged cow."
The beauty pageant has always been seen through the prism of satire. Smile, directed by Michael Ritchie and written by Jerry Belson, was critically acclaimed upon its initial release, with Roger Ebert praising it for “doing a good job of working over the hypocrisy and sexism of a typical beauty pageant.” Christina Newland, a film journalist and editor of the upcoming book She Found It At The Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire, and Cinema, however, claims that the film is "totally coloured by a disdain for women."
Newland continues, “Ritchie uses [the film] to diagnose a deeper illness in American society at the time, but he is also a man, and he kind of links that social illness to womanhood, or the feminine.” That is a serious problem.”
A more respectful perspective
Drop Dead Gorgeous, a 1999 dark comedy inspired by Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, satirizes the pageant industry while also paying homage to its lead beauty queen character and acknowledging one of the main reasons why a woman might want to compete in such an apparently antiquated competition: to escape. Amber Atkins, played by Kirsten Dunst, wants a better life and believes that winning the competition will allow her to leave the trailer park where she grew up. The same can be said for Holly Hunter's Carnelle in Miss Firecracker (1989) and Minnie Driver's Mona in Beautiful (2000).
The latter film, which marks actress Sally Field's directorial debut, follows Mona, a beauty pageant addict from a small town who will go to any length to win a crown, including having her best friend pretend to be the mother of her child.
Driver says, "My sister and I created [Beautiful] mainly because it spoke to an element of feminism we both care about." “That is, women who want to speak up but have been conditioned by society to believe they can only do so if they ‘look good.'
“Pageants are awful, but that's from the perspective of a rich, affluent woman with a good education. Before we made the film, I spoke with a lot of people, mostly from the South, and they told me that pageants were "a way out" for them."
“Beautiful did not dive deeply into a possible feminist evolution,” she continues, “but it has always made me think more deeply about the means of ‘escape' open to a lot of women, as well as to keep questioning what they are running from.”
A beauty pageant film, according to Newland, succeeds when it doesn't look down on the organization. “I like films that don't consciously and vigorously oppose the beauty pageant, but that recognize – on some level – the need for women to be glamorous and performative with it,” she says. “I adore the new trend of beauty pageant films in which women implode the pageant from the inside out – [where] they don't match the stereotype and subvert or disrupt the performance.”
Little Miss Sunshine, an Oscar-winning film from 2006, and Dumplin', a Netflix original film from 2018, are both prime examples of this. Abigail Breslin's young Olive in the first looks nothing like the hypersexualised child contestants she's up against, but when it's her turn to perform in the talent round, her suggestive dance astounds both the crowd and the organizers. Her uniqueness is celebrated, and it unites her squabbling kin. In Dumplin', Danielle MacDonald's titular plus-size heroine starts a revolution at her mother's local beauty pageant (Jennifer Aniston) by joining and encouraging other non-traditional contestants to do the same.
Miss Congeniality, from the year 2000, still defies expectations. Though Sandra Bullock's tomboyish FBI agent Gracie needs a makeover to fit in with the competition's "she's elegance, she's grace" style, it's her intellect and ability that ultimately helps her solve the case and save the day over her male counterparts. Although Gracie is the audience's introduction to the absurdity of beauty pageants and their not-so feminist perpetuation of unfair beauty ideals, the film also emphasizes the importance of female camaraderie and friendship, even though women are competing against one another.
Whitewashing in the movies
Despite these films' more complex and sensitive portrayals of pageants and those who participate in them, one common denominator remains: the leading beauty pageant contestants are all white people.
It's no secret that the European ideal of beauty has long dominated both beauty pageants and Western cinema, and the number of pageant films starring ethnic minorities is small. To Wong Foo, Thanks for All! is a 1995 film directed by Wong Foo. Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo starred alongside Patrick Swayze as two of a group of drag queens on a road trip to a contest in Julie Newmar, and Gina Rodriguez starred in Miss Bala, which used a beauty contest as a backdrop for the storyline but didn't revolve around it.
Now, with the release of Misbehaviour, we have a pageant film that focuses on a contestant of color while also providing one of the most nuanced representations of beauty pageants and their role in society to date.
Phillipa Lowthorpe's film takes a satirical approach to the subject matter, and while it should have spent more time discussing Hosten's perspective rather than Alexander's and the other white characters' – after all, Hosten was the one who made history – it does aim to inspire all sides of the feminist debate. Writers Rebecca Frayn and Gabby Chiappe passionately argue that women should not be herded and judged like cattle for recognition, while also acknowledging that the results of these competitions might not be entirely negative. It demonstrates how they can have a huge impact on contestants of color, who do not have the same opportunities for travel and adventure in their home countries as their white counterparts. And, as a result, how they can have a significant impact on audiences of color, who can see how their appearance is celebrated and, as a result, have greater self-love for their own appearance.
The real Jennifer Hosten, who is now a retired psychotherapist, tells BBC Culture, "The movie allows you to see the different points of view without actually criticizing anyone." “It allows you to walk away from the film with an open mind.”
She thinks the period film serves as a reminder that there is still a long way to go when it comes to intersectionality, rather than that pageants are a negative thing in and of themselves.