Although the Miss America pageant is sagging in popularity, ethnic and diasporic beauty pageantry is thriving. The Western beauty contest template of individuated competition is a resilient and malleable form that has been altered to fit an array of contexts, desires, and personal and political agendas. Each of these documentaries probes the variant meanings and aspirations attached to the enshrinement and display of gendered and ethnic competencies and explores the hierarchies of distinction bestowed through beauty pageantry. The films reviewed here depict pageants among the Navajo and in women’s prisons in Colombia and Russia.
In Miss Navajo, filmmaker Billy Luther, whose mother is a former Miss Navajo Nation, uses clips from interviews with prior Miss Navajo titleholders as well as interviews with current contestants to profile the 2005 Miss Navajo contest. Luther’s documentary constructs the Miss Navajo pageant as distinct from traditional, mainstream white pageants in its emphasis on ethnicity, pride, and cultural education and preservation. Luther highlights how the Miss Navajo contest reformulates traditional pageant protocol by focusing on competitions designed to assess contestants’ cultural competencies, including fluency in speaking Navajo, knowledge of Navajo history and culture, sheep butchering, traditional attire, and making fry bread. Although there are similarities between Miss Navajo and traditionally white contests such as Miss America, Luther’s documentary positions Miss Navajo as a vital cultural showcase for promoting ethnic heritage, belonging, and cultural restoration. Many of the contestants trumpet the idea that Miss Navajo is more than just a beauty pageant, pointing to the importance of countering damaging representations of Navajos by being role-models and cultural emissaries.
While viewers glimpse traditional pageant preening and performance anxiety, these aspects of pageantry are downplayed. Attention is mainly confined to worries over language fluency and sheep butchering. No footage displays contestants in the shimmering evening gowns and high heels that, according to the pageant Web site, are part of the Miss Navajo competition. This omission helps camouflage the tensions inherent in relying on beauty pageantry, with its displays of Western class-based poise and glamour, as a strategy to further ethnic solidarities. Numerous scholars have debated whether or not the corset of beauty pageantry can be stretched to allow for complex portraits of ethnicity rather than truncated characterizations of ethnicity as costume, cooking, and crafts--bits of ethnic piquancy.1 Such readings could help to make explicit how claims of difference may be adulterated by the internal contradictions of wielding butcher knives and parading in high heels as well as using competition and appraisals of gendered merit as ways to build community and demonstrate ethnic pride. With adequate critique, Miss Navajo could be useful for stimulating classroom discussions about intersectionality, collective and personal empowerment, cultural policing, and the hybridization of rites of passage, as well as issues of cultural re-representation, ritual, gender normativity, the gaze, objectification, and the public appraisals of women’s bodies, behaviors, and aspirations. Despite its implicit contradictions, Miss Navajo is an engaging documentary.
La Corona is a powerfully compelling documentary about a beauty pageant held at the largest women’s prison in Colombia. Far from being the ideal citizen-subjects that typically win tiaras on mainstream catwalks, the women of La Corona represent their respective cell blocks in a prison beauty pageant. Background stories of their lives and hopes before imprisonment are highlighted as well as contestants’ numerous rationales for participating in the pageant, which include cementing cell block solidarities, getting attention, breaking prison routines, and making time pass quickly. As one contestant asserted, “You have to have lots of balls to do this. We are in a rough place.” Prison officials promote the pageant as a way to control aggression and provide inmates with a “taste of freedom.” There is ample footage of the labor and coaching needed for pageant readiness as well as of the pageant itself, which replicates traditional pageants such as the Miss World contest with evening gowns, disclosure of weight and height, and celebrity judges. The film’s postpageant scenes include interviews with the losers of the pageant, one of whom attributes her loss to colorism and racism. Over and beyond discussing the politics of prison pageantry, La Corona is a vivid portrait of the plight of women in prison and their unrelenting struggles for survival, connection, and dignity including establishing lesbian relationships within prisons and the anguish of separation that ensues upon release.2 It would be useful to supplement the film with readings on globalization and transnational patterns of the criminalization and incarceration of women.3
Miss Gulag focuses mainly on the plight of three women imprisoned for assault, armed robbery, and drug trafficking in one of the thirty-five Russian prisons established to hold the growing numbers of women sentenced since the fall of the Soviet Union. More a prison ethnography and less about the beauty pageant itself, Miss Gulag’s profiles of the women, and the decay wrought by prison regulation, is moving and disturbing. Spliced with shots of prison lineups, inspections, meals, and the sewing factory where inmates make military uniforms, the stories and hopes of three women form the core of the documentary as it switches between prison life and the pageant. One of the women was released seven months before the filming, and her inability to get a job or citizenship papers as well as the separation from her imprisoned lover establishes continuity between prison life and the problems faced by women in the world outside prison bars. Here too, prison officials celebrate the prison pageant as an ideal way to give prisoners opportunities to “feel like women,” to connect with freedom, to help them in their future lives, and to better their chances of being paroled, since beauty pageants are considered part of prison rehabilitation and refinement. Contestants point to enhancing their parole chances as a catalyst for participation. The beauty pageant involves fashion competitions including the making and modeling of imaginary prison uniforms, flower-studded gowns, and Greek goddess costumes. As with La Corona, contextual readings would be helpful for guiding class discussions, in this case on women, poverty, and transition in post-Soviet Russia.4
Karen W. Tice (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education at the University of Kentucky. In addition to her book, Tales of Wayward Girls and Immoral Women (University of Illinois Press, 1998), she has published on beauty pageants and higher education, born-again beauty queens, Reality TV makeover shows, social reform movements, and feminist activism. She is currently completing a book called Queens of Academe: Beauty, Bodies, and Campus Life.
1Christine Yano, Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in the Hawaii’s Cherry Blossom Festival (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006); Wendy Kozol, “Miss Indian America: Regulatory Gazes and the Politics of Affiliation,” Feminist Studies 31, no. 1 (2005): 64-94; Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain, Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, “Loveliest Daughter of our Ancient Cathay!: Representations of Ethnic and Gender Identity in Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 5-31; Lok Siu, “Queen of the Chinese Colony: Gender, Nation, and Belonging in Diaspora,” Anthropological Quarterly 78, no. 3 (2005): 511-42; Shirley Jennifer Lim, A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930-1960 (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Nhi T. Lieu, “ Remembering ‘the Nation’ through Pageantry: Femininity and the Politics of Vietnamese Womanhood in the Hoa Hau Ao Dai Contest,” Frontiers 22, no. 1/2 (2000); Natasha Barnes, “Face of the Nation: Nationalism and Identity in Jamaican Beauty Pageants,” in Jennifer Scanlon, ed., The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000): 355-71; Jon Schackt, “Mayahood Through Beauty: Indian Beauty Pageants in Guatemala,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 24, no. 3 (2005): 269-87; Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, eds., Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power (New York: Routledge, 1996).
2Regina Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
3Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex (New York: Routledge, 2005).
4Susan Gal and Gail Kingman, The Politics of Gender After Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Janet E. Johnson and Jean C. Robinson, eds., Living Gender After Communism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).