SLICE: Pageants may glitter, patriarchy still tarnishes them

Throwing around buzzwords such as ‘social change’ and ‘inclusion’ cannot disguise the misogyny at the root of beauty pageants.  

The search for Miss South Africa 2023 is on and like clockwork, every year social media is filled with entry videos from young women who have their eyes set on the pageant crown.  

This year the Miss SA organisation has changed some rules and will now accept entries from aspirants ages 20-30 years old, a change from the 20–28 years range. For the first time, married women and those with children may take part in the contest. This comes after Miss Universe announced in August 2022 that married women and mothers would be allowed to compete in 2023 for the first time in its history.  

Miss SA prides itself on advocating for women’s rights and its awareness of social change. The organisation in its own words describes itself as “a platform for change, a powerful organisation, a leading voice on female empowerment and a launch pad for much needed change”. 

However, changes made to the competition rules, glitter and buzzwords such as “empowerment” and “social change” cannot distract me from the problematic fundamental nature of pageants.  

I am also reminded that in 2021 the organisation sent Miss SA Lalela Mswane to Israel to participate in Miss Universe 2021 despite the SA government withdrawing its support and that of South Africa for the pageant. This is related to Israel’s historical and ongoing apartheid politics.  

The Miss Universe organisation on its website says it “celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them”, and yet hosted a pageant in a country that actively disrupts the lives of many Palestinian women. And Miss SA took part in the competition and represented a country still wounded by its own history of apartheid in another state that perpetuates it.  

In 2018, when Miss SA celebrated its 60th anniversary it revived controversy around apartheid when black women could not compete in the pageant, and relegated to contesting in “Miss Africa South” until 1992 when the pageant became inclusive. The organisation failed to acknowledge that racist and segregationist history contributed to black participants breaking away to a pageant of their own. 

What does “inclusivity and diversity” mean when finding one woman out of thousands is at the heart of pageantry? What does “woman empowerment” mean when only the woman who fits into a set criterion of beauty and femininity wins?  

The ways of beauty pageants have changed over time, from awarding women for simply being beautiful to promoting other attributes such as education, eloquence and a demonstration of general knowledge. This is what Miss World calls “beauty with a purpose” which also focuses on how the contestant will use the title or opportunity to better their communities. 

Third wave feminism recognises that women have agency and rejects the idea that women do not have choices and therefore is in support of women participating in pageants. However, it does not accept the gender binary and exclusion of other genders such as transgender or gender non-conforming existences. 

The question remains whether these competitions uphold patriarchal norms. The rules may say contestants need traits other than beauty, but at the end it is beauty that determines the winner. 

Whether women have agency or not, the objectification of beauty measured by competitive processes that have so much to do with the body specifically, reinforces patriarchy instead of taking it apart.  

With the changes to the rules, Miss SA has shown the ability to challenge ideas in nonthreatening ways and by some right, they have shown that with enough time they can adapt their steps to new socio-political and cultural climates. However, it is a matter of how dismally late changes come.  

By the time I am done holding my breath for another step in the right direction for pageants, maybe we would have fully obliterated the need for them.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Mbalenhle Dlamini. Photo: File