Are Pageants Still Relevant?
Social media reactions and comments on the recently concluded Miss Universe Philippines prove yet again that the Filipino public’s fascination with beauty pageants has remained high and very much alive. To be sure, not all Filipinos are into pageants. But it is probably safe to say that a significant fragment of the Philippine population across socioeconomic and age groups find themselves absorbed in a love affair with pageants.
They follow beauty queen pages and pageant forums, discuss and debate pageant issues, and circulate images of favorite queens or contenders for the crowns. This fascination raises a couple of questions: What can explain the Pinoys’ continued fascination with pageants? Are pageants still relevant?
Not a few enthusiasts and pageant historians have offered plausible answers to the first question. I could think of at least three interlocking reasons with which fans steeped in pageant history probably share.
Rich Beauty Files and Historical Roots
To me, one obvious reason is that we have had a long history of winning international pageants. To date, we have produced 4 winners in Miss Universe, 6 in Miss International, 4 in Miss Earth, one in Miss World, one Miss Supranational, and many other international titles and runner-up placements that have earned us the reputation of being a “pageant powerhouse”.
The fact that we have produced a significant number of global queens speaks of a rich pageant heritage that fans and followers would surely like to sustain and continue to celebrate. Victory in pageants enhances our national and global beauty files, so to speak. It cements our place on the world beauty map. And winning is contagious; it makes us want to win more.
This long and impressive streak of winning international crowns is of course also rooted in local histories that celebrate beauty and grace during local fiestas and community events. Even before we sent delegates to the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants founded in the early 1950s, the Philippine public imagination had already been captured by the reverie and revelry brought about by the Manila Carnival Queens of the pre-World War II era.
Quite notably, before the onset of Western colonization, our indigenous communities through their epics and oral histories already engaged in celebrating beauty. Heroes, and anti-heroes in some of these oral traditions often find themselves engaging in war or contests to pursue, rescue, or protect the most beautiful woman of the land or the tribe. In other stories, women who are strong, beautiful, and powerful take leadership roles and are often apotheosized as deities.
Another related but perhaps more compelling reason for the public’s sustained fascination with pageants is the existence of a complex network of Philippine pageant fandom. This network includes vibrant pageant enthusiasts, members of the creative industry supporting pageant candidates, institutions that organize pageants and mobilize support from government units and private agencies, and the very proactive pageant candidates themselves. This complex fandom network emerging from a nation that has had a long history of pageant engagement and victory is a veritable source of sustenance.
While members of the creative and beauty industry engage in training and preparation of the candidates for the competition, enthusiasts mount and participate in colorful campaigns that draw attention to these candidates. Meanwhile, beauty institutions and organizations facilitate the demand and desire to get pageants going even during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the rise of social media and other digital platforms, pageant contenders proactively collaborate with enthusiasts and creative industry players to curate and create public personae that are attractive, relatable, and socially relevant. It is this fascinatingly tight network of agreeing and disagreeing pageant fans that have undoubtedly sustained public interest and fascination with pageants for a long time.
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The (Ir)relevance of Pageants
Notwithstanding the said reasons for Pinoys’ general fascination with pageants, not a few observers can’t help but ask: Are pageants still relevant? I would like to address this question by offering at least two perspectives. One, pageants are relevant in so far as it sustains the profit-driven beauty industry. Second, pageants are contested sites for reclaiming power and agency, especially for the contestants who use pageants as resources to transform their lives and those of others.
Let me explain the first perspective. Pageants operate in the logic of spectacle that captivates the public attention and imagination to give a premium on certain values and ideologies. They are used by the beauty industry, for instance, to draw public attention to products and services that perpetuate certain notions of beauty. Pageants are therefore relevant to big businesses and sponsors that support an ideology of beauty that privileges a certain socio-economic class, ethnicity, gender, sexualities, language, social practices, etc.
On the flip side is the transformative and liberatory potential of pageants. This second perspective on pageants touches on the rather complicated relationship of pageants with society. You see, pageants have been considered exploitative and quite anachronistic, especially at this time when women share a lot more options to thrive and succeed by charting their personal growth and careers.
We are also no strangers to stories of candidates being exploited and abused in a system that already limits the definition of what is beautiful. Segments, where women parade in bikinis on stage, are often likened to a livestock show; such events are perceived as degrading, dehumanizing, and disrespectful of women.
As a pageant enthusiast, I do not find it useful to deny or overlook the dark history of pageants. Exploitation, objectification, and commodification of women’s bodies and talents did happen, and I suspect, continue to happen in certain pageants. These instances that reveal the dark side of pageants should be a cause for alarm and concern among members of the pageant community. In the age of #metoo, such unfortunate events shouldn’t be occurring. Well, they should not have occurred at all had we been more vigilant and critical of the system.
Pageants as Transformative
But to view pageants as merely exploitative is to also miss their transformative potential that has been realized in a lot of ways. To be monolithic about pageants is to be unfair to women, creative industry players, and enthusiasts who see pageants as spaces to create a difference and positive impact in society.
Pageants have been a site for reclaiming agency and asserting power for women who participate in them. Pageants have been turned into platforms for advocating worthy causes—be it about environmental protection, public health awareness, community development, rehabilitation from natural disasters, cultural heritage preservation, and many others.
Of course, pageants are not the only space to champion these causes. More young women these days have access to a variety of platforms and resources to pursue leadership and their advocacies, unlike their counterparts in the past. Yet, it is not a secret that because pageants operate in the logic of spectacle, they rivet great public attention on these causes. Pageants amplify the voices of the communities advocating such causes. Pageants raise public awareness and understanding of pertinent social issues. They could launch important conversations on these issues.
As Mpule Kwalegobe, Miss Universe 1999, says: “Beauty does not use me; I use it.” I suspect a lot of women participating in pageants these days operate using that logic. Beauty is a tool; it is a resource. And such an assertion turns what is often considered an exploitative system on its head. It suggests that women who proactively participate in pageants use the system or the platform to assert themselves and pursue their interests. If these interests continue to resonate with the public interest and the public good, then pageants will surely remain relevant.
Gene Segarra Navera is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore where he teaches writing and communication courses. He has been a pageant enthusiast since he was five and has also been involved in the training of a couple of pageant contestants from the Philippines and Singapore.