Feminists hate beauty pageants. Well, sometimes we (okay, me) watch them with fascination and disgust, but we'd happily trade them for a competition involving actual female rolemodels rather than just models. Yet in the latest issue of Bitch magazine Anna Clark writes (in "Miss Interpreted: Beauty pageants meet their new ideal") that the pageant form adopted in recent years by various groups to highlight social issues just may be a "savvy political strategy."
Clark's key example of the new political potential for crowned queens and their communities is the Ms. Wheelchair America contest, which is open to women who use wheelchairs, aged 21 to 60, and trades in the talent and wardrobe competitions for the ability to speak and lobby for disability-related issues. The reigning queen, Kristen Connors, acknowledges it's not really a "beauty pageant" but that the format itself is part of the point since disabled women are not considered typical beauty pageant material.
The salient question, posited by Clark:
While Ms. Wheelchair America is no doubt a noble untertaking for a notoriously underserved population, is building on the superficiality of mainstream pageants a justification for using the format at all?(I don't like "noble" in there, but maybe that's just me.) Clark goes on to note that Miss America doesn't represent the average nondisabled woman either and that crowning the most "relatable" and likely traditionally beautiful person of a community is perhaps "the cost of saddling a single individual with all the ideals and virtues of a community, rather than allowing enough room in the spotlight for multiple individuals."
Aside from the fact that I didn't know that Ms. Wheelchair America uses up the one spotlight alloted to disabled people, crowning a queen gimp is hardly why the contest has come to mainstream media attention. Last spring Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, Janeal Lee, was replaced by a runner-up after much ado about her not using her wheelchair often enough to qualify for the title. The fascinating real story the mainstream media never mentioned is that the dethroned woman had confronted the state pageant coordinator (who was also the previous year's winner) for her role as a plaintiff in a number of ADA access suits. While cast as the victim of silly pageant rules, Lee's real conflict with the pageant officials was that she prefers a more genteel approach to access than forcing the courts to address the law.
Let me recap: A finalist for the disability spotlight for 2005 made mainstream media news as an unfairly treated (non-litigious) woman, and disabled people are squabbling over who is disabled enough. The subtext: If they can't agree on who qualifies as disabled then why should we be expected to understand and accommodate them?
Just how is this noble trek into mainstream media attention politically useful to disabled people? The "relatable" spokeswoman the media wrote about is the one rejected by the pageant, the one who doesn't want to start any lawsuits, the one who is cast as bewildered and hurt by the rules of the pageant -- and the pageant is cast as a symbol of the disability community. The radically active disability rolemodels end up Othered again in favor of a disability spokesperson that suits the media and culture as it is. (If Lee counts as disabled, that is. If she doesn't, well, problem solved anyway.)
But suppose it is possible to remake the beauty pageant format into an actual political tool that serves disabled people. Is it good enough that the "relatable" queen will likely be physically impaired and never low enough on the subculture's hierarchy to be someone with a mental or developmental impairment? Isn't the whole exercise of choosing an ideal representative the problem with beauty pageants? If feminism's critique of beauty pageants teaches us anything, it's that using our own objectification or idealization as a political tool is a Faustian bargain. We still remain on the outside fighting to get access in.