Well! Cliched topic! Not my cup of tea.
Writing it because the other day, late in the night, I saw almost a complete TV programme after ages. I don't remember when I had last done that. It was a public debate being conducted by star journalist Barkha Dutt on 'Should Beauty Pageants be Taken Seriously?' Although cliched, I still got to hear some interesting points of view. I will try to record them impartially. I will end with a slightly partial view of mine.
I will tag the negative points with a (-) and the positive ones with a (+).
(-) Commodification of women : The central theme of beauty pageants is still physical beauty. It's a repackaged repetition of the age-old treatment of women as commodities.
(+) But these days, the beauty pageants involve non-trivial amount of intelligence. The participants are not just physically beautiful, they are smart and intelligent.
(-) It's a short cut to fame.
(+) People have various strengths, strong intelligence, strong bodies, etc. They all use it to their own benefit, for making money, fame, career. What's wrong if some one has a beautiful body and uses it for making a career?
(+) A pageant contestant prepares rigorously; and a model's life is a hard one.
(-) The beauty and confidence of the pageants is more a media projection. There're much more beautiful and smarter women walking the streets. Winning a pageant doesn't mean in any way that the person is one of the most beautiful really.
(+) People's consciousness about staying and looking healthy has improved over years.
(-) Appearance related stresses, depression is also on a rise. Anorexia is becoming a common problem.
(-) If beauty queens are fit to be someone's role models, why do beauty queens always announce Mother Teresa as their role models in the QA session?
(+) The particular beauty queen participating in the debate (can't recollect her name; she was quite a beautiful lady) quickly announced that she'd mentioned Sushmita Sen as her role model.
(-) Pageants vow their commitment for the upliftment of the society, helping starving children and other charity. They are quick to forget that as soon as they get their first break in bollywood.
(+) The beauty queen said that she has been involved in charity activities for the last 6 years and continues to be so irrespective of the title.
(-) Why Miss India? Why not Miss Femina, or Miss Palmolive? They aren't the picture of 'the' perfect Indian woman. They shouldn't be named what they are far from.
(+/-) Kiran bedi said that it's a very lucrative career attracting many talented young women, and involves big money. It's good, nothing wrong about it. But it's another good career. It doesn't define a universal role model for anyone. It may, for some; but not for every body.
There were many more points made both in favour and against the motion. I don't recollect all of them right now.
My point of view
Well! Expectedly, I lean more towards the traditional picture of an Indian, and my views aren't unexpectedly liberal.
But, to the question of whether beauty pageants create role models, and whether they should be taken seriously, my answer leans gently towards negative. The most prominent output of the pageants is a brand ambassador whose skyrocketted fame can be used for a definite period of time (which is usually rather brief) by the multinationals sponsoring the event. The second important output is starlets for the Bollywood releases of the next couple of years. Almost all beauty queens end up in bollywood. A small fraction of them make it really big there. But definitely their end target is Bollywood or modelling.
Media's coverage of such events is tremendous. That happens because a large number of people are interested. And such large numbers are created not by the intelligence factor, but by the (physical) beauty factor. The large number of people who show interest to see those programmes are interested in seeing pretty faces flashing beautiful smiles, fluttering their eyelashes, moving gracefully in revealing evening dresses. In the swimsuit round, the judges and pageants might be genuinely interested in judging the pageant's health and comfort with the entire body. But the large number of spectators, who make the extravagance of the events possible, have no such noble intentions which scrutinising the exposed flesh which goes on air. This large number causes a bloating up the importance of such events. The competition becomes commensurately cut throat. But all said and done, what's tested in a beauty pageant are qualities of an ordinary order. A fairly ordinary level of intelligence, a fairly ordinary level beauty and grace, packed in an extraordinary amount of guts, only to stand on stage and beam plastic smiles. It's a model, and film-star. A product. Not an ideal woman.
We have idolisable women all around us. Two people present in that debate were two instances: Kiran Bedi, and Barkha Dutt. There are many extra-ordinary women in the acquaintence circles of each one of us. What good qualities -- grace, intelligence, courage, confidence, love, care, feminity -- we get to see only in meagre quantities in a beauty pageant are available in plenty among the women we know personally : our friends and colleagues, that simple Mom back home, those school teachers we remember from our childhood. The only thing that's available in plenty in a beauty pageant is that same thing -- female flesh -- which has always topped in the list of man's desire, but has never, and will never, be considered at par with the above qualities. Men will look for female flesh in nondescript places - movies, sleazy magazines, so-called fashionable streets...even brothels, and now beauty pageants. Wrapping that up with trivial amounts of other higher end qualities is like draping a naked body with a translucent dress. It may add an aesthetic aspect for the artistically inclined, but it doesn't anyway take away the nudity.
I repeat, it's nothing wrong to sell flesh. I consider even prostitution a very legitimate trade from the prostitute's point of view. I consider it a great hypocricy to look down at prostitution as a wrong thing, leave alone sinful. The only thing that makes it a trade of a low order is the requirement it satisfies: man's carnal desire. Prostitution is not characterised by a lack of sophistication, intelligence, courage etc. We have high-profile prostitutes who garnish their skill set with plenty of these qualities. Neither does prostitution get characterised by the mere act of commercial copulation. What characterises prostitution is the requirement it targets. It doesn't target intellect or aesthetic sense, though a call-girl may very well display her intellect and aesthetic sensibility to ensnear her client, a strong turn on for many sophisticated gentlemen (well...me included ;) ). Prostitution targets sexual desire, and uses it as its prime vehicle for money earning. Prostitution wouldn't survive if man hadn't been grappling around to satiate that insatiable fire. Any trade which critically depends for its existence on this grappling around of man, be it movie-stardom or modelling, can't be put in any different category than prostitution. It's just a matter of degree; there's no qualitative difference. The other aspects, which are boldly advertised as the higher order aspects aren't dominant enough to figure as the prime aspects of these pageants. As I mentioned earlier, beauty pageants depend for their existence on a large body of audience whose objective of taking interest in such events has none of those higher end requirements. Beauty pageants would fail to be so extravagant in absense of these lusty viewers. Modelling would have failed to reach such high-profile status in absence of this extravagance. How seriously should such events be taken? I don't know!
Regarding creation of role models, I see a distinct priority inversion happening in beauty pageants. Priority inversion between brain and beauty. Brain is an asset of higher order than body. I won't listen to arguments disputing that. An intelligent woman who is also beautiful stands strong as a role model. She will be respected, worshiped, loved and desired in proper proportions. A physically beautiful woman who is also somewhat brainy is a very different thing. Most will give a damn to intelligence if it's the secondary attribute. A model, or a film actress may be a very intelligent woman in her private life, but the huge crowd of youngsters who idolise her and want to become like her will hardly have anything to do with that. It's her physical beauty, and her stardom (which doesn't have much to do with her intelligence) which draws fans. If someone asks what's wrong in younsters idolising someone because of her physical beauty and the resulting stardom, I don't have a clear answer. All I can say is, if many-many youngsters go that way, something wrong will happen to the community in general. I will always pray that the number of youngsters choosing beauty-pageant winners as their role models be limited to a small number.
This leads to the final aspect of my opinion: the loudness of glamour world. I felt a little worried by the fact that glamour of movies and fashion world has a strong effect on the young mind. A yet to mature mind sees only that aspect and gets drawn without bothering to consider the matter in all its aspects. The largeness of fan-following that glamour world draws is not surprising. But my worry was partially extinguished because I also realised that the effect of this shallow glitter is also shallow on most. Our teachers, our mothers -- who on the one hand have only a very limited number of potential fans -- have a much more profound effect on our psyche. Intellectuals, social workers, teachers and mothers (sisters and wives) have their own respective sets of fan-following and idolisers: restricted in number, but far more stronger. The scenario seems beautifully balanced!
For me, the nobility and idolisability of our profession (or occupation) depends on which of our qualities is it that creates the fan following, irrespective of the number of fans. We deeply idolise our Moms -- or saints like Mother Teresa -- because it's created of the greatest of all qualities: love, which connects to the soul. We idolise intellectuals, politicians, teachers, scientists because of the quality of the next order -- intelligence and brains, which connects to the mind. We idolise film-stars and models because of their beauty and celebrity status, which connects to the body.
The preference order is rather clear.