Mad about U
Beauty pageants are such an obsession among Filipinos that seemingly every town fiesta, noontime variety show, school reunion, oath-taking ceremony, cultural affair, or rat-catching activity has as a highlight a competition for the fairest of them all. And there’s genuine pride in Filipino women who win international beauty pageants, as if the recognition makes up for the slight of once being described as a nation of domestics.
Which explains the triumphant to-do over the country’s hosting the Miss Universe pageant this month, thanks in part to Philippine sponsors led by former governor Chavit Singson who reportedly invested $11 million in the event. The fact that the reigning Miss U is Filipino adds to the jubilation and stokes national pride. Hosting the pageant for the third time (the first two were in 1974 and 1994) is seen as another opportunity to show the world that, as far as beauty queens are concerned, there’s more where Pia Wurtzbach comes from, to paraphrase a tourism poster in the bad old days of martial law.
Tourism officials consider the pageant a prestigious platform on which to showcase the country’s natural charms. The live broadcast, according to Miss U officials, draws 500 million viewers worldwide. Pageant-related activities are picking up steam with more of the candidates flying in and security measures being laid down. Various sectors have been encouraged to pitch in to ensure the event’s success.
As early as last year, in fact, TV footage showed street dwellers being hauled into government vans, apparently as part of the cleanup of Metro Manila’s main thoroughfares. Such “eyesores” and evidence of poverty would apparently mar the bright image intended to be projected. Nothing new there. In her heyday, Imelda Marcos began the practice when she had the unsightly slums literally whitewashed from the view of delegates to the 1979 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. And rounding up and removing vagrants from Manila’s public space was done as well during the papal visit last year.
Not everyone is happy, of course. The women’s party-list group Gabriela slammed the Miss U pageant as “an expensive exercise to lull the people and the international audience into a false sense of wellbeing and celebration” amid the extrajudicial killings and unfair trade relations faced by the Philippines. Other women’s groups and feminist organizations have been as vocal against beauty pageants, denouncing them as entertainment premised on women being paraded as objects, their perfect looks and bodies a great fit for corporate sponsorships.
A feminist writer noted that the most awkward moment in last year’s Miss U pageant wasn’t the fact that host Steve Harvey misread his cue card and named, not our Wurtzbach, but another candidate as the winner. It was that he couldn’t even distinguish one woman from the other, betraying the subtext in beauty pageants that women aren’t seen as individuals but as symbols—of the “ideals” of beauty, of the “definition” of womanhood.
To be sure, more recently, even this “cattle show” has updated its outlook and encouraged contestants with qualifications other than just the right curves. Some have gone on to become respected professionals, public figures and advocates who use their crown to shine a light on important issues. But the swimsuit competition, the gowns, the big hair and glamour—all are givens that predictably present a narrow definition of beauty and womanhood to viewers.
And while beauty contest winners get to enhance their confidence, public speaking skills and personal discipline, what of the losers who, by their defeat, are told that they do not fit the pageant template of beauty? (Surely these are not just sour-grapes questions.)
At any rate, if we are to consider hosting the Miss U pageant here as a seal of good housekeeping that validates the Philippines’ place among nations, it has to be asked: Does it mean that the country is in tiptop shape and proudly holding its own in the international community despite the extrajudicial killings being lamented by global institutions? And would there be a letup in the bloodshed on the streets, at least for the duration of the Miss U contest?