Cultural morality is a subject that is of constant debate in any nation that enjoys the political and economic stability required to allow such philosophical discussion on a national scale. Beauty pageants have been a popular subject for feminism for many decades, but only recently has particular attention fallen to the matter of child pageants and the possible harm they are doing to children and the cultural image of children in general.
This sample sociology essay is written on the evils that are child beauty pageants and contains a great deal of information illustrating how they damage our cultural infrastructure.
The corrupting influence of beauty pageants
Many observers ask if beauty pageants are exploitive of young girls while those who participate in them and benefit from them, insist that they are not. The opinions of experts are mounting against those on the sides of the pageants, however. In the information age it is becoming increasingly easy to observe the long-term and far-reaching ramifications of child beauty pageants, and the evidence is not good. Through an analysis of pageants in general, it is possible to see the power they have over the perceptions of an entire culture and thus the danger that child pageants represent to the perception of children within that culture.
Beauty pageants on the whole, have been considered an objectifying agent for a long time. They endure as a successful industry and cultural activity in many countries even as they serve as a battlefield for the most fundamental discussions of the perception of beauty and femininity. Whatever complaints the opponents of beauty pageants have, they cannot ignore the significance of these events to the culture of any population they are held in:
“Particular definitions of gender and race always inform the construction of national identity, even as these definitions present the constant potential for transgression… The beauty pageant is precisely this balancing act. It pieces together an ideal from separate parts and manages not only to convincingly call that ideal a whole, seamless identity, but also to spectacularly demonstrate the pleasure of power.” (Weiser, 22)
Beauty pageants, because of their success, hold a great deal of power over the perceptions of those who are in proximity to them. Simply by existing they define the paradigm of the discussion of beauty.
The fact that they receive so much media attention empower pageant women with attention and influence over the culture they are serving as the standard for. Unfortunately, they do this by virtue of a limiting mechanic:
“If beauty pageants provide a space through which women can realize an experience of embodiment and the possibility of agency, one of the ways they realize this is, ironically, through a particular construction of the female body” (Weiser, 24).
Even the winners of pageants will not suit the standards that crowned them winners forever, indeed not for long at all, despite the age-defying efforts of modern medicine and cosmetic science.
Such limitations have not gone unnoticed. Nor has the feminist movement’s efforts to endow women with more attributes than the purely physical:
“Changes to the rules and regulations of beauty pageants mirrored historical, social, and political restructuring that occurred throughout the decades” (Mitchell, 173).
Additional Reading: Learn more about the psychological impact of beauty pageants.
Marketing the best winner
Through a remarkable demonstration of market awareness, beauty pageants embraced whatever trend was most significant at the time and changed to accommodate it. World War II resulted in a Jewish winner, the civil rights movement resulted in a Jewish winner, whoever received the most sympathy at the time was perceived as the most attractive.
In this way the pageants, while outwardly empowering the winners, were at the same time marginalizing them with what would forever be considered a pity-vote. Pageant women were the symbol of perfect beauty of the time, but not because of anything they did, rather because they were fortunate enough to represent the hot issue of the moment.
That has never stood in the way of women choosing to participate, however. Rather, pageant participation has gone up over time as the pageant administrators realized a need for diversity and brought more participants in:
“The number of contestants who vie for this crown every year has skyrocketed to over eighty… But one thing hasn’t changed during the past half century. Year after year, Miss Universe continues to remind us of the glorious beauty of diversity” (Birnbaum, 2).
Such propaganda comes directly from the pageant organizers, but a positive spin cannot erase the simple fact that these women merely see a chance to further their own careers through virtue of their physical attributes. While such a practice might be considered reprehensible by feminists and exploitive of the women who participate in pageants, women like those in Miss Universe are adults who have every chance of realizing what they are making of themselves.
Miss American and the marketing of beauty
And such risks are probably considered acceptable by those participants who do realize it. Many pageants, especially the major ones, are genuine avenues to further success, even for contestants who do not win. There is also a considerable marketing force behind the pageant scene working hard to make it appear the very embodiment of modern living:
“One of the ways that the Miss America pageant makes itself accessible to a mass-mediated audience is through the rhetorical strategy involving equal opportunity: we appeal to everyone, we threaten no one, and anyone can be Miss America. The representation of America that is performed on the beauty pageant stage is one in which cultural hopes and desires, anxieties, and fears about whiteness and national identity are crystallized.” (Weiser, 155)
Additional Reading: Learn more about gender roles in advertising.
Of course not anyone can win Miss America and the illusion of appealing to everyone is more of a mandate that pageants should appeal to everyone and if they for some reason do not appeal to a particular person, that person is abnormal. In modern terms, this is an excellent example of the 1% subduing the rest through the propaganda of potential, however impossible it would be to actually attain that mystical mountaintop of ultimate success.
More fundamentally than that is the effect that beauty pageants have on perception of beauty and femininity. As was previously mentioned, pageants establish the framework of any discussion about beauty and feminine characteristics because they are commonly considered as the experts:
“A debate about ‘what is feminine’ first requires a universalized category of ‘femininity’. The pageants assert that beauty is one of the descriptive dimensions of that category; within that frame you are welcome to argue about the meaning of beauty and the importance of beauty, but not the existence of beauty or its linkage to femininity” (Wilk, 133).
Pageants are so powerful that no discussion of anything in their venue can occur without reference to pageants. Perhaps not literally, but certainly in terms of the standards established by the pageants.
How children suffer
This affects children directly through the disturbing prevalence of child pageants. From the very beginning, they have presented a disturbing and confusing concept of child beauty:
“Pageants for younger girls emerged in the 1960s and have increased both in number and in popularity in the decades since. These contests often evoke the ethos of small-town America while copying the glamour and sexuality of adult pageants” (Mitchell, 235).
They first familiarize themselves to average citizens and then twist that familiarity into something distinctly more adult. The innocence of a child pageant seems entirely intact, any perceived corruption just an indecent overreaction on the part of the viewer, but the innocent children are portrayed in such distinctly mature, though not inherently sexual, ways, that what other interpretation is there than to perceive them as children fulfilling the roles of adults. Such a juxtaposition manages to undermine conventional morality and make a profit of it at the same time:
“Innocence becomes both a mystifying ideology and a vehicle for commercial profit” (Giroux, 47).
If such a problem were to be perceived and then stopped, it could never be claimed that child pageants are exploitive because they would be a thing of the past. But they do persist, because they make too much money to end, and so they are exploitive of innocence and childhood with no regard for the harm inflicted on either.
And there is harm done. Various scandals in recent decades have illuminated this, as have expert analyses by psychologists and sociologists. There can be little doubt that pageants are having a toxic effect both directly and because of the stubborn illusion that there is nothing wrong with them:
“Within the myth of innocence, children are often portrayed as inhabiting a world that is untainted, magical, and utterly protected from the harshness of adult life… Innocence in this instance makes children invisible except as projections of adult fantasies—fantasies that allow adults to believe that children do not suffer from their greed, recklessness, perversions of will and spirit, and that they are, in the final analysis, unaccountable.” (Giroux, 31)
Misconceptions about child beauty pageants and its harm
Child pageants are perceived as safe and innocent because of a misconception that children are immune to the problems of adults, when that simply cannot be the case. If such were true, there would be no need to raise children; they would simply become fully formed adults at some point, finally vulnerable to the evils of the world after emerging from a mystically protected state in which the actions of adults around them had no lasting effect.
Child psychologists would likely be unnecessary in this world. While the exploitive aspects of beauty pageants might be tolerable in the case of adult competitors, and indeed inseparable from modern culture anyway, that does not justify the increasing taint of child beauty pageants on the psychology of both the participants and the spectators. Both participating families and pageant administrators blatantly exploit the child competitors to continue making a profit while blindly ignoring the effects they are having on those children, shaping the next generation of exploiters, most likely.
Birnbaum, Cara. Universal beauty: the Miss Universe guide to beauty. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 2006. Print.
Giroux, Henry A.. “Nymphet Fantasies: Child Beauty Pageants and the Politics of Innocence.” Social Text 57 (1998): 31-53. Print.
Mitchell, Claudia, and Jacqueline Walsh. Girl culture: an encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008. Print.
Weiser, Sarah. The most beautiful girl in the world beauty pageants and national identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.
Wilk, Richard. “The Local and the Global in the Political Economy of Beauty: From Miss Belize to Miss World.” Review of International Political Economy 2.1 (1995): 117-134. Print.
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