The Subcontinent buys into the beauty pageant myth, even as the West abandons it.
When, on 26 November, the vari cms Misses representing their countries cavort on the stage at Seychelles to be Miss World 1998, the event will be hard not to notice in South Asia and other parts of the developing world. In contrast, if you are living in Europe or North America, you probably will not even notice it is being held. Last year (1997) this nearly happened to this writer, living in England, when India´s Diana Hayden was crowned Miss World in the “tropical paradise islands” of the Seychelles. It was just by chance that I phoned friends in Shillong, Meghalaya, a few days before the pageant took place, and so realised that a whole year had rolled by and the event was coming up again.I had watched the contest live on TV while visiting these same friends in 1996. That was the year of Miss World in Bangalore. The passion and politics which surrounded this and the following Miss World, makes it perfectly clear that “Miss World” is now a bigger deal in the so-called “Third World” than in the “First World” where it all began.
While all of South Asia was glued to television screens watching the Hyderabad beauty Diana Hayden make away with the crown last year, it was quite difficult for an uninitiated Miss World buff in London to access the event. Having heard that the event was taking place, I perused the British TV guides and saw it was only being broadcast on the satellite channel Sky TV. No one in my family (comfortable English middle class) nor any of my immediate friends or acquaintances had a satellite dish to receive Sky TV After extensive phoning around, my nephew in the south of England (I live in the north) was finally able to get the programme recorded by a friend. He sent the videotape to me a couple of days later.
The lack of easily accessible programming demonstrates how the market for “Miss World” and other beauty pageants has shrunk in “the West”, compared to “the East”, “the South”, or wherever you want to draw the line between the affluent and the developing nations. In South Asia, the current wave of beauty pageant fever, which has reached deep into the growing suburban middle-class strongholds of India in particular, can be traced to the success of Indian representatives Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen in the 1994 Miss World and Miss Universe contests, respectively. Bangladesh sent a representative to Miss World in 1996 (but not in 1997), while Nepal and Sri Lanka were both represented in 1997. Miss World, and the beauty pageants which feed into it around the region, is very much a current event in South Asia.
Diana Hayden´s win in 1997, broadcast in India on the then fully government-controlled channel Door-darshan, only served to make the media hype that much stronger. Few who watched the contest could have doubted the wisdom of the judges in awarding Diana Hayden the crown from amongst the 86 contestants. (She also won the “Miss Photogenic” title and the award for best beachwear during the event.) Anyone who could quote Yeats (“In dreams begin responsibilities…”) in her “personality” speech deserved to win.
After the contest, The Times of India carried a daily column, “Diana´s World”, while the beauty queen visited London as a guest of Erica and Julia Morley the organisers of the contest. When the column was not written by Diana herself, staff journalists filled in from London. One of them, Rashmee Z. Ahmed, came close to the truth when she remarked that Diana Hayden is little known or recognised in London, in part because Miss World has become “Miss Third World, staged in the developing world and won by girls from parts of the globe where political correctness could not push the show off TV”.
Ahmed was perhaps a trifle simplistic in suggesting that political correctness was the sole reason the show was available on but one satellite television channel in the UK. However, it is true that Miss Worjd, which was first held there in the UK in 1961, has since largely faded from the public eye in that country. From the very beginning, there was resistance to Miss World, and the commodification of women´s bodies (turning them from people to ´objects´) that it represented. The organisers responded to criticism by launching the “beauty with a purpose” slogan, and introducing more by way of personality tests for contestants (so that they could still be objects, but with personality and purpose).
After a flour bomb attack which sprayed compere Bob Hope, among others, the contest was moved to Las Vegas. It was subsequently relegated to Sun City, a resort complex in the South African homeland of Bophuthatswana. Television viewing figures began to fall and, in 1984, the BBC announced its decision to stop televising beauty contests such as Miss World because they were “anachronistic and offensive”. While political correctness was the ostensible reason for the BBC taking them off the air, falling ratings (reflecting growing public indifference) and rising broadcast costs were undoubtedly as decisive factors in the decision.
In today´s Britain, Miss World competes in a far larger media market for what is, in terms of viewing figures, an increasingly small piece of the pie. According to Sky TV, the 1997 Seychelles contest was watched by 365,000 people in the UK. Extrapolated (quite unjustifiably, but why not?) to the rest of the world, this represents a viewing figure of approximately 36.5 million. In 1996, the organisers of Miss World claimed a 2.5 billion audience and in 1997 they claimed 3 billion! Such figures seem on the border of fantasy, but how is anyone going to check?
The facts on the ground render accusations that beauty pageants are vestiges of “cultural imperialism” quite untenable. Most people in the UK (apart from the minuscule 0.7 percent of the population who have Sky TV and chose to watch the pageant and some interested “cultural observers” such as this writer) do not know and could not care less about Miss World or Miss Universe. One would be hard put to find a Briton who would be able to give the name or nationality of the current Miss World, or the name of our own Miss UK for that matter. Whose culture is it that is supposed to be imperial? Certainly not that of the average British person in the street.
Likewise, whose culture are we talking about when arguing, as did critics of the contest in India in 1996, that “Miss World” compromises the modest ideals and values of the stereotypical pativrata Indian woman? Most commentators on the contest in the Indian media (comfortable middle class) spoke in its favour, and there were plenty of letters and articles by current and former beauty queens in India arguing that beauty pageants offered a valuable and harmless “way out” of the powerlessness, repression and stultification that much of middle-class Indian represented for go-ahead young girls.
Some critics see Miss World as a conspiracy by multinational cosmetics companies to enable them to market their products in South Asia more effectively. This, too, seems unlikely. The beauty industry (cosmetics, designer wear, fitness centres, beauty salons) appears to be doing quite well among the South Asian middle classes with or without beauty contests. While successful companies are always on the look-out for high-profile commercial sponsorship opportunities to further increase their profit margins, media and popular responses in places where beauty contests are ascendant would suggest that this is not a particularly “top-down” phenomenon.
It could be that the social sciences can provide a different model to explain the Miss World mystique, one that goes deeper than theories of cultural imperialism and multinational conspiracy in explaining the ´Miss World´ phenomenon and the disparities between east and west, north and south described here. Modernity is the cultural form associated with progress, singularity and hope. Postmodernism is the cultural form associated with flux, hybridity, and cynicism.
“Miss World” is essentially a ´modern´ phenomenon, one which has been taken up with vengeance in those parts of the world which aspire to the trappings of a ´modern´ Western lifestyle (and where religious mores or economic devastation do not preclude it). In a country like the UK, meanwhile, the population at large has moved on to a state of postmodernity. Certainly, back in the 1960s, there were families in living rooms across the land who sat down to watch Miss World, not only because it was exciting but because it was one of the few things on TV to watch at that time. It was also a symbol and celebration of the new globalisation, with the technology that made it possible and the beauty which was its efflorescence, the way of the future (just like the Eurovision Song Contest, equally big at that time and equally small now, was a symbol of the new Europe).
This, too, is how Miss World has prevailed in many of the developing countries in the world, as it did in Britain after World War II. The Miss World pageant is a symbol of modernity, of shared cultural values (and standards of beauty). The “queens” celebrate their nations´ arrival on the global stage in a way that has become outdated and old-fashioned in Western eyes. The “Miss World” myth (that it really means something in the global arena) is perpetuated and willingly subscribed to in many developing countries, and by the contest organisers. Where economics is lacking, it offers the chance of what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu called “symbolic capital” for countries desperate to buy their way in to what is seen as “the modern world”. What is sad, in the wake of the protests that took place during the 1996 contest in India, is that the world they seek to enter has moved on.