Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oh sister, I haven't misjudged beauty pageants or Why I don't agree with India Knight

Excuse the long rant, but...

I have a knee jerk reaction to columnists. Commenting on things is relatively easy, especially when you can frame everything by your own thoughts rather than research, rather than journalism. But before I get into my usual whinge about newspapers being more about individual comment than reporting and researched opinion, lets have a little peak at India Knight’s column for The Sunday Times about finally learning to love beauty pageants. A post where I will counter her opinion, with my opinion.

India’s revulsion of the beauty pageant has been recently replaced with one of the myriad of entrapments of modern raunch culture, a ‘realisation’ that objectification can’t hurt us if we say we want to be objectified. The idea always brings me back to Audre Lorde’s idea that the masters tools will not bring down the masters house, in this situation, to me, that is freedom from the many oppressions and problems that come from being treated as objects will not come from siding with the actions and ideas that make us such. I can understand wanting to revel in attention of others but when all your other achievements are listed under a title of beauty and male relation (as Miss England’s Rachel Christie’s are by India) I feel it somehow negates those achievements without that beauty, that beauty is what makes this woman a real successful sports woman.

India says she doesn’t ‘feel sorry’ for Rachel and she doesn’t ‘think [Rachel] humiliated herself’ so one would assume that these were her previous judgements on women who chose to take part in the blanket of beauty competitions around the world. I’m not a fan of beauty pageants but I’ve never felt so above them as to condescend that they’re “poor, pretty simpletons [who] are just too thick to think for themselves” We all make our choices - feminist or not - we make them because we know they’re the right choices for us. To get forward, to excel and succeed.

The power of beauty in our society is a strong one, we are constantly reminded by the press that beauty, as dictated by societal values, is central to our success (India runs a quick list of these). So why would you choose to refuse that instant reward, that shortcut to having your hard work and achievements given air to the world without having to work twice as hard just to get a look in? It’s a route, often the route, paved out for many women to take, and it takes a whole lot of effort to deny the rewards that come from showing a bit of leg, slapping on the prescribed amount of make-up, showing the correct amount of interest and knowing your place.

Being against beauty pageants for many women is not a cry of the gnarled feminist movement trying to constrict the existence of women we think aren’t trying hard enough. It is a cry of the feminist movement in all it’s continuing growth and freshness, backed by the knowledge of our older sisters who have been fighting this shit for too long, and the backlash of younger women still being forced to perform for their acceptance in what is invariably a mans world.

India’s conclusion that our feminist voices “fail to take into account how fantastically good women have become at objectifying themselves over the past 30 years - not because they’re stupid or misguided when it comes to sexual politics, but because they like it.” is the embodiment of the biggest fraud of our society. That women do not need to be relieved of their oppressions, of the objectification that undermines us at work, on the street in the structure of complex relationships with friends, lovers and strangers because they enjoy these oppressions. Don’t balk if I point you towards Dworkin’s four elements of subordination for structural notes, element three.

India Knight is right, Rachel Christie is an inspiration, she’s an accomplished athlete who specialised in the heptathalon, she trains six days a week, she has passion and talent and is everything the young women of our society need to know about to know they too can be great women. They need to know women do make damn fine participators in sport and not just bit players and cheerleaders. Rachel is also the first black woman to win the pageant title, which does something to subvert the winning ideals of the all white tendencies of Western beauty standards, that's a whole other post. The travesty is that women in sport are so undervalued that Rachel had to fund her athletics training through beauty pageants, and some journalists feel the need to qualify her achievements by highlighting a famous sportsman uncle. Nobody valued this amazing sportswoman until she has proved herself to be beautiful, and now she has society will reward her, with cash prizes, with sponsorship deals. She deserves this money, and as a talented black British woman she deserves our support and attention as she heads towards competitions of her talents, and her passion, and her training.

But she shouldn’t have to spend her time playing the beauty game to get ahead in her arena of excellence, she trains six days a week, she shouldn’t have to tout her body to be recognised for her hurdling, sprinting, jumping, javalining and shotputting. I can’t help but think if women were valued for their actions, their achievements that were made beyond the suffocation of our appearances we would be in a very different position, and that Rachel would have got the money and attention she deserves as an athlete before having to fall back on her beauty.


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