Fury over Miss South Africa’s decision to compete in Israel: here’s a feminist criticism

The participation of Miss South Africa 2021, Lalela Mswane, in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel on December 12 was all the rage. Some South Africans support its participation while others have called for its withdrawal.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in South Africa views Miss South Africa’s participation as tacit support for Israel’s policy towards Palestine, which the movement views as a form of apartheid.

The South African government called on Mswane to boycott the competition and withdrew its support for his participation in accordance with its foreign policy towards Israel. It is a policy of solidarity with the people of Palestine and rejection of Israel’s annexation of Palestinian lands, and its negation of the two-state policy that would give Palestine independence.

Apart from the political controversy and Miss South Africa’s decision to participate, there are other contested aspects of beauty pageants from a feminist perspective as well.

Feminists are divided on the merits of beauty pageants. The criticism is closely related to the type of feminism adopted by individual feminists. It also reflects a generational gap between older and younger feminists.

I review these perspectives as a feminist theorist who has published extensively on feminist theories and activism of the women’s movement over the past 30 years.

Evolution of feminist views on competitions

Second-wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s (also known as radical feminism) was the first major setback against patriarchy. It links the oppression of women to the power relations between men and women. From this perspective, women’s bodies are seen as a battleground over which men exercise sexual and reproductive control.

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Patriarchy also inflicts beauty ideals that exploit women by setting standards of beauty that are mostly unattainable. From this perspective, women’s bodies are objectified and create the conditions for their exploitation in the pornography industry. This is detrimental to all women.

Second wave feminists accept the binary relationship between women and men and worry about how women’s bodies and sexuality are used against them to satisfy men’s sexual desires. Sexual liberation is linked to women’s choices about their own bodies in relation to reproduction. Examples include the campaign to legalize abortion.

The advertising industry, by exploiting sexualized images of women, sets the standard for what is considered beautiful.

Radical feminists worry about the structural inequalities created by the beauty industry. Beauty contests are therefore seen as an exploitation of the natural beauty of women to the detriment of all women. This is especially the case for women who cannot meet these impossible standards, fueling the epidemic of food-borne illnesses and body dysmorphia.

Third wave feminists, or a younger generation of the 1990s, reject the idea that women lack the capacity to make choices. They support the choice of women to participate in beauty pageants as a form of empowerment and agency.

They reject the binary distinction between women and men to the exclusion of other genders – such as transgender people. They also advocate for women to embrace diverse ideas about sexuality, sexual pleasure, and beauty. It is a rejection of what they see as the “victim feminism” of the second wave.

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If women want to dress lightly, wear high heels, tight skirts, and makeup, this is their choice as a form of sexual liberation. These feminists focus on individual choice and women’s action, rather than structural inequalities. In South Africa, they would consider the ‘killer queen’ phenomenon, where women flaunt their looks and dress very seductively, while pursuing wealthy men, as this type of expression of the sexual emancipation of women. women and control over their own bodies and beauty choices.

Beauty and South African contests

The Miss World pageant has been heavily supported in South Africa for many years. But it had a checkered history under apartheid, when only white competitors could compete. In the last years of apartheid, black female candidates could compete in their own competition, known as the Miss South Africa. This blatant segregation between white and black women for the purposes of the contest showed, in a very visible way, the racist prejudices about beauty that normalize the appearance of fair skin, thin, and straight hair.

The lack of integration of these two competitions has been widely criticized by other countries and has been the victim of international boycotts. This meant that Miss South Africa and Miss South Africa could not participate in the Miss World or Miss Universe competitions.

It is this recourse to boycotts (economic, academic and cultural) that contributed significantly to the end of apartheid. These boycott tactics against apartheid underpin the call to boycott the Miss Universe 2021 pageant in Israel, due to the belief that international political, cultural and economic boycotts can change Israel’s political policies towards Palestine.

More than beauty

The nature of contests has changed over time from judging women purely on their appearance and rewarding them simply for their beauty, to the inclusion of other characteristics such as education, speaking and showing off. general knowledge. Many of the applicants who participate now have university degrees.

Regardless of this, the question remains whether these competitions reproduce patriarchal norms. Whether the contestants are more than beautiful is irrelevant, because in the end, it is beauty that determines who wins.

Beauty pageants reproduce the patriarchal idea that women should be feminine, groomed to be beautiful from a young age and their beauty enhanced. Women who do not meet these standards of beauty, or who choose to reject this type of femininity, are seen as strange or subversive by those who support heteronormativity.

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Beauty pageants also set a certain standard by which most men judge all women. Women become trophies by which men measure their success in heterosexual relationships.

The simple fact that the women who participate are not married, divorced or have children reinforces the idea of ​​a sexist femininity that supports the “purity” of women.

A social construction

Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. Being beautiful is carefully cultivated through androcentric processes that distinguish a small minority of women and make their appearance the norm for all women.

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This objectification of women’s beauty as measured by competitive processes, specifically related to the body, reinforces patriarchal norms rather than eroding them, whether or not women have their autonomy.

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