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Beauty Queens and the Capitalist Beast


Vijay Prashad

All

the men are computer programmers, all the women are beauty queens, and some of

us are humorless. So it seems in the land of Silicon(e) India. Bill Gates says

that Indians are the second smartest people on the planet, and the international

consortium of Beauty Contests deems Indian women to be the most beautiful. Gates

wants us to work in his computer monopoly, so he flatters us with technical

complements. The megaliths that salivate before the Indian market (the size of

France, we are told eagerly) complement the Indians by saying that we too should

overconsume nonsense that makes us look like our Beauty Queens. The H1B visa

quota has been increased to 300,000 per year, to encourage more of us to apply

to work as cyber-coolies. Simultaneously, Lara Dutta won the Miss Universe title

(May), Priyanka Chopra won the Miss World crown (November), and Diya Mirza took

home the Miss Asia Pacific honors (December). Flattery opens markets and

encourages labor to toil along in the service of a benevolent white supremacy.

Beauty

Pagents have a long history in the US, but their role as the purveyors of

overconsumption on the international stage is less well known. Founded right

after World War II, the Miss Universe pageant is the junior partner to the Miss

World contest. The latter was created by Eric and Julia Morley in 1951 as a

promotional device for Mr. Morley’s company, Mecca, which is what he called a

‘leisure group’ (travels, entertainment, etc., all at a high price). In 1970,

Mrs. Morley coined the phrase ‘Beauty with a Purpose’ and they took what was

essentially a parochial British television event to the world stage. The Miss

Universe contest, in comparison, was much smaller and has remained far less

prestigious until CBS television and Donald Trump took over the enterprise in

late 1996. Before the early 1990s, the Miss Universe pageant was as ‘Universal’

as the US baseball championships that are called the ‘World Series.’ CBS-Trump

took the pageant into the age of neo-liberalism, in direct competition with the

UK’s Miss World. It is funny, therefore, to hear Trump on the contest: “there

is nothing to compare with the Miss Universe Organization. We have a rich

history of bringing together some of the most impressive, beautiful and

interesting women from many backgrounds and cultures and then helping them

achieve their goals.” Miss World makes the same claims.

With

the fall of the Berlin Wall, US capital and its media outlets have been on a

global binge. The reach of the US (and Australian, viz. Murdoch) media is now

quite long and there is a move from many of these outlets to extend their market

share in places like India. CBS-Trump’s Miss Universe pageant conceived of

something called ‘Big Event Television,’ a hugely promoted event that draws a

large audience who will then be turned-on to ancillary programs through

expensive advertisements. There are a host of promoters who sign-up eagerly to

show their products to a world for which these pageants have become something of

an opiate, the Bread and Circuses of current capitalism.

It

took the structural adjustment of India (from 1991) to bring forth the crowns of

beauty onto the svelte elite women of India. After all, Indian models are no

strangers to the winner’s circle at the pageants. In the Miss World pageant, the

first Indian model to win was Reita Faria in 1966. Six semi-finalists and

finalists (’70, ’72, ’75, ’78, ’80, and ’91) followed her. At the lesser Miss

Universe, six semi-finalists and finalists (’66, ’72, ’73, ’74, ’90, and ’92)

forged the path for Sushmita Sen’s victory in 1994. But the victories have come

fast and furious in the 1990s. In 1994, Sen and Aishwarya Rai won both pageants.

Since then, the Miss World pageant has been won by Diana Hayden (1997) and Yukta

Mookhey (1999); in 1996, an Indian model was a finalist. On the Miss Universe

side, Indian finalists and semi-finalists have stood nervous until the final

stages of the contest each year (1995-1999) until the clean sweep this year. The

1990s did change the tempo, perhaps to let us know that global firms wish to

project to the Indian consumer a vision of beauty, the advance guard not only

for beauty products, but also for the entire consumer goods industry (the

creation of desire transforms luxuries into necessities).

Not

only is this good for the global firms, but it is also something that is enjoyed

by bourgeois nationalists. Sushmita and Aishwarya saved India from the Surat

plagues and riots of 1994. Now Lara Dutta saves India from the drought. Foul

images of the Third World are erased by doctored images of radiant women.

Reality can be easily occluded by big event television. After Ms. Dutta’s

victory, Femina’s editor Sathya Saran wrote in <The Economic Times> that

‘today, reality has overreached the dreamI The country is proud, happy. But not

surprised.’ Utter drivel. The country is still in the midst of a drought that

effects 100 million people, at the very least. And most of the ‘country’ had no

idea that this graduate of St. Xavier’s (Mumbai) spent the last three weeks in

war-torn Cyprus as part of a campaign to revive the tourist industry on that

island (Cyprus spent $7 million on the effort).

One

reason feminists and other leftists across the world are unhappy with the

pageants is that they act as a screen against the war against women conducted by

such agencies as the IMF. This is apart from the issue of the degradation of

women by the pageants (the reduction of woman to mere body, etc.). In Nicosia,

protests outside the basketball stadium (decorated like a Greek amphitheater)

ensured that we not forget the trials of the world as we celebrate this shallow

kind of universalism. A banner proclaimed that ‘we want schools and hospitals,’

knowing full well that there are choices to be made in the world and a victory

for India at the pageant does little, for example, for its enduring crisis of

education and health. One Cypriot woman dressed in rags and carrying black

garbage bags told the press that ‘I’m a teacher and we have to beg for handouts

and we are wasting money here on this pageant. Why?’ Indeed, why? Simply to

promote a set of values (consumerism) that seem to be far more important to

contemporary capitalism than social justice and ethical conduct.

The

protests put the pageant on notice. For this reason, the final question asked to

the contestants was ‘what would you say to those who condemn the contest as an

affront to women?’ Lara Dutta’s answer appealed to the judges: ‘pageants like

Miss Universe give us young women a platform to foray in the fields that we want

to and forge ahead, be it entrepreneurship, the armed forces, be it politics. It

gives us a platform to voice our choices and opinions and it makes us strong and

independent as we are today.’ Of course Ms. Dutta is entitled to her own

opinion, but what is of interest is that she chooses these three options:

business, the military and politics. Money, the Gun (or Nuclear Bomb) and Power.

Of course her father, to whom she dedicated her victory, is in the Indian armed

forces. But one can still muse over these ‘choices and opinions,’ especially how

divergent this view of the world is from that of the All-India Democratic

Women’s Association or of Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (whose

recent bus trips between India and Pakistan are a landmark of people-to-people

diplomacy).

 

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