Ebony Goddess: Queen of Ilê Aiyê. Directed by Carolina Moraes-Liu. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2010. 20 minutes.
Lady Kul el-Arab. Directed by Ibtisam Mara’ana. Jerusalem: Heymann Brothers Films, 2008. 56 minutes.
The World Before Her. Directed by Nisha Pahuja. Sausalito, CA: ro*co educational, 2012. 90 minutes and 57 minutes.
Few cultural practices are as popular a phenomenon—locally and internationally—and are as politicized as the modern beauty pageant, for it is through such events that communities are imagined. Despite the recent decline of interest in national pageantry in the United States in the last few decades, national pageantry has become more prevalent worldwide. The Internet now enables any interested viewer access to thousands and thousands of videoclips of pageants, from the most recognizable Miss America to the lesser known ones, including the National Beauty Contest for Women with Disabilities and the annual Native American Beauty Pageant. A stream of scholarly work also focuses on beauty pageants as a means of understanding local and international political economies, the free market in which the beauty economy functions, and the emergence or consolidation of sociopolitical communities through what Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger described as “invented traditions”—cultural practices that are altered, integrated, or in some cases created entirely anew.1
Ebony Goddess: Queen of Ilê Aiyê, a documentary set in Salvador, Bahia, in the northeastern region of Brazil, illustrates this production and reproduction of invented traditions that are essential to the imaginings of a communal consciousness. The film depicts the rise of Queen of Ilê Aiyê, a local beauty pageant set in Curuzu, a densely populated neighborhood of 600,000 in which Bahia’s predominantly Black community resides. Organized by the group Ilê Aiyê, the first Black-African organization to emerge from the Black consciousness movement of the 1970s, the pageant is considered one of the most significant cultural elements of the prominently celebrated, as well as controversial, all-Black carnival, an event intended to affirm a Black aesthetics and raise the communal self-esteem in a place pervaded by Eurocentric standards of beauty. The film follows three of the fifteen women competing for title of Ebony Goddess, Queen of Ilê Aiyê—Aurelina, Joseane, and Talita—as they each perform an assemblage of traditional practices, including the production of personalized and colorful Afro costumes and learning the proper Ijexá dance form with Jinka (stylized shoulder movements and Afro rhythms). The film follows each participant, less searching for identity as much as producing it in the hopes of embodying a unique personalized style that can represent the communal aesthetic, for the year at least, as the Ebony Goddess. The winner, a symbol of Black-African pride, sits prominently at the head of the world famous Ilê Aiyê street carnival.
As a relatively rough cut documentary that has been the winner of several international film festival awards, it is a pleasure to watch, and it also opens up many discussions relevant to women’s and gender studies classes. As a critical practice—perhaps even a “feminist” counternarrative—it is worth considering how the pageant may symbolize, if not also act as a form of, Black resistance to Euro-hegemonic norms, which are reinforced through the unequal exchange of beauty supplies and other commodities in the global marketplace dominated by multinational corporations situated in the United States and Europe. There is also room, however, for critique of both the pageant and the film in that the film discusses neither the disciplining of women’s bodies that the contest requires nor the way it creates the ideal aesthetic of a new and proud Black womanhood that has been largely directed by either the members of Ilê Aiyê or the judges this group appoints (this is unclear). For example, the pageant claims to offer a counter to Western beauty standards, but the female contestants are still mostly thin.
Therefore, some questions that might provoke discussion in a classroom are: What ideology underlies the ideal form of femininity produced by the pageant and then distributed locally and transnationally through one of the most prominent carnivals in the world? Who decides standards of femininity, standards defined in many pageants by size, weight, and height? Is this pageant, like most pageants, a staging of patriarchal and/or accompanying heteronormative ideals? In an all-Black pageant, what qualifies as Black enough?
More polished than Ebony Goddess, the film Lady Kul el-Arab follows one contestant, Duah Farez, a young model from a small Druze village in the Galilee region of Israel. Adopting the stage name of Angelina (after her Hollywood role model Angelina Jolie), she attempts to pursue her dream of becoming internationally known. At the start of the film viewers learn that Duah has qualified to participate in the local pageant and has also successfully sailed through the elimination process to attain one of the coveted spots as a Miss Israel pageant finalist. Unable to participate in both simultaneously, she chooses, with the support of her family, to stay in the Miss Israel pageant, which would be her most direct route to a successful modeling career; however as a member of the Druze community, a religious minority within the geopolitical borders of the Israeli state, she is subject to its standards and norms that regulate women’s attire. As a result, the contentious swimwear segment of the pageant becomes the main issue, and Duah is caught in the local politics of her community. Religious leaders and other members of the community admonish her about the consequences of participating in the Miss Israel Pageant and threaten her for her impending “violation of family honor.” At first she continues, relying on heavy protection and secrecy to shield her from harm. But after senior members of her community threaten to excommunicate her and her family—imploring her to “be a [proper honorable] Druze woman”—she succumbs to the pressure to withdraw from the Miss Israel Pageant. It is a devastating blow for her; there are no other ways out, no other venues to pursue her dreams.
Although Duah does not participate in the pageant, this beautifully produced documentary allows the viewer to witness the struggles of a Druze woman who dares to challenge the patriarchal authorities of her own community. For the classroom, the film illustrates the limits—some of which are the product of patriarchy—placed on an individual woman in her struggle to attain her dreams. There is also a critical perspective that students can apply to a discussion of transnational feminisms, namely the situating of “other” Arab women in opposition to Westernized womanhood, in this case represented by an Israeli woman. However, screening this film presents a real danger in that it reinforces stereotypes by replicating the familiar single story about Arab women and their assumed traditional, backward, and patriarchal values and culture: they are oppressed by their own men. Such a narrative also potentially reinforces the notion that Israeli women, as well as other Western women, are the model of modernity, progress, and individual achievement.2
Unlike the first two films, The World Before Her does not focus solely on a beauty pageant, the Miss India beauty pageant comes to represent one cultural extreme: the Westernized face of Miss India ravaged by global capitalism. Following Ruhi Singh, one of twenty contestants selected to compete in the Miss India contest, the film illustrates what is at stake in winning the title—instant and widespread international celebrity status and an assured lucrative modeling and/or acting career. The other extreme is the face of Prachi Trivedi, a militant leader of a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls. A portrait of dichotomy, The World Before Her is, as one summary expresses, “a tale of Two Indias.”3 This documentary cuts back and forth between these two dramatic narratives of somewhat diametrically opposed visions of India’s future and the space women and girls might occupy within it. The contrast exposes their differences and similarities, the personal hopes and dreams of individual women, as well as the general conflicts and contradictions women and girls must face. However, portraying such intense extremes produces India, an incredibly diverse and complex society, as a two-dimensional culture that offers an either/or proposition for women. Such vast differences do exist, but the wide spectrum in between traditional and modern, past and future, fundamentalist Hindu and Western materialist cosmopolitanism is entirely erased. Similarly, such a dichotomous portrait of the United States—pitting radical religious extremism against materialistic celebrity-dom—is not only biased but not representative of most Americans, even if in many ways the nation is ever more conservative. The World Before Her also potentially reinforces stereotypical notions that women in India are oppressed by a more backward, traditional, and patriarchal society. For this reason, I would not recommend this film for an introductory or advanced women’s and gender studies class without readings and discussion that incorporate transnational feminist critiques and prepare students to watch the film critically.4
Additional Suggested Readings
Beauty Pageants and the Nation
Banet-Weiser, Sarah. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Barnes, Natasha B. “Face of the Nation: Race, Nationalisms and Identities in Jamaican Beauty Pageants.” The Massachusetts Review 35, no. 3-4 (1994): 471-92.
Callahan, William A. “The Ideology of Miss Thailand in National, Consumerist, and Transnational Space.” Alternatives: Local, Global, Political 23, no. 1 (1998): 29-61.
Cohen, Colleen Ballerino, and Richard Wilk. “Introduction: Beauty Queens on the Global Stage.” In Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power, ed. Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1-11.
Davé, Shilpa. “‘Community Beauty’: Transnational Performances and Cultural Citizenship in ‘Miss India Georgia.’” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (2001): 335-58.
Latham, Angela J. “Packaging Woman: The Concurrent Rise of Beauty Pageants, Public Bathing, and Other Performances of Female ‘Nudity.’” Journal of Popular Culture 29, no. 3 (1995): 149-67.
Lavenda, Robert H. “Minnesota Queen Pageants: Play, Fun, and Dead Seriousness in a Festive Mode.” Journal of American Folklore 101, no. 400 (1988): 168-75.
Lieu, Nhi T. “Remembering ‘The Nation’ through Pageantry: Femininity and the Politics of Vietnamese Womanhood in the Hoa Hau Ao Dia Contest.” Frontiers 21, no. 1-2 (2000): 127-51.
Mani, Bakirathi. “Beauty Queens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Transnational Modernities at the Miss India USA Pageant.” Positions 14, no. 3 (2006): 717-47.
Unger, Arthur. “Beauty Pageants: The Debate—and High Ratings—Go On. Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1983.
Watson, Elwood, and Darcy Martin. “Introduction.” In their “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 1-23.
Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. “‘Loveliest Daughter of Our Ancient Cathay!’: Representations of Ethnic and Gender Identity in the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant.” Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 5-31.
Gender and Nationalism
Blom, Ida, Karen Hagemann, and Catherine Hall. Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Berg, 2000.
Walby, Sylvia. “Gender, Nations and States in a Global Era.” Nations and Nationalism 6, no. 4 (2000): 523-40.
Yuval-Davis, Nira. Gender and Nation. London: SAGE, 1997.
1 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, ed. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
2 See Edward Said’s discussion of orientalism (Orientalism [New York: Random House, 1979]).
3 See the PBS POV synopsis of the film.
4 To present the widespread protests against the Miss India Pageant as the product solely of riotous and extreme Hindu nationalist terrorists is seriously problematic. As is the case in the United States, where white fundamentalist Christian extremist groups pose the greatest threat to national security (not Muslim terrorists), radical extremist religious groups have rapidly expanded in India. Similarly, while Botox and skin lightening treatment sessions are a rather frightening example of the limited choices women in India may have in the pursuit of their “dreams” (a successful career and independent future), the reality is that patriarchal norms and values often circumscribe the dreams available to women in the United States where the Miss America Pageant has been one of the largest scholarships available for women. Some readings that could usefully accompany any of the films reviewed here are Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Boundary 2 12/13 (1984): 334-35; Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, “Global Identities: Theorizing Transnational Studies of Sexuality,” GLQ 7, no. 4 (2001): 663-79; Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997); Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); and Amanda Lock Swarr and Richa Nagar, eds., Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010).