To Be a Miss. Directed by Edward Ellis, Aaron Woolf, and Flor Salcedo. Westport, NY: Mosaic Films, 2016. 84 minutes.
By Invitation Only. Directed by Rebecca Snedeker. Newburgh, NY: New Day Films, 2006. 56 minutes.
During a time of political and social instability, To Be a Miss, directed by Edward Ellis, Aaron Woolf, and Flor Salcedo, follows the lives of three young women, Bethania Dávila, Mirla Guillen, and Kiara Veras, as they compete for Miss Venezuela 2012. Depicting a highly disciplinary process, in one scene two judges tell them that they are fat, have piernas feas (“ugly legs”), or need cosmetic surgery. Indeed, each woman takes extreme measures to attain the “ideal” body for a Venezuelan beauty queen: tall, slim, and light skinned. The directors show how pageant coaches and organizers, in particular, construct a national ideal of femininity. Bethania is asked in one moment if Miss Venezuela represents Venezuelan women. She answers, “No creo que la mujer que es elegida a Miss Venezuela representa las mujeres venezolanas. . . . Representa una muñeca, una muñeca. Ella es hecha” (I do not think that the woman who is selected as Miss Venezuela represents Venezuelan women. . . . She represents a doll, a doll. She is manufactured). The film is most instructive in this move, demonstrating the deeply gendered fictions of nationalism.
Beyond the violent glamour of the performance, the Venezuelan Mujeres en Movimiento (Women in Movement) radio show positions the pageant within a wider geopolitical context. Nahirana Zambrano, one of the hosts and a professor at the University of the Andes, notes that the “first experiment with democracy” in Venezuela, occurring in the 1940s in a period of dictatorship, was through a beauty contest. She offers insight into the importance of pageants as exercises in democracy even in unstable and restrictive political spaces. Thus, the construction of Venezuelan femininity on the pageant stage demonstrates the ways that women’s bodies are used by the state to highlight national pride and achievements. The production of idealized citizens, in this case beauty queens, reinforces ideas around Venezuelan progress that dovetail with nationalist discourse during a time of unease and instability in the country.
While To Be a Miss marries beauty, the commodification of women’s bodies, and the drives of Venezuelan nationalism, By Invitation Only takes us elsewhere. Directed by Rebecca Snedeker, this film centers the class- and race-based politics of the world of Carnival and debutante balls in New Orleans, Louisiana. Snedeker profiles her cousin, Emily, a young woman selected to serve as queen for her father’s krewe for Carnival. Krewes largely originated in the South during Reconstruction, a tool to reassert white dominance over black bodies. Snedeker interrogates this system of racial power via the bodies of the debutantes.
Some elements of the Carnival season are open to the public, such as the parades, where krewe members ride atop floats or walk in the streets throwing beads and other trinkets to people on the streets. For the most part, however, the process of crowning debutantes for individual krewes, is indeed, by invitation only. And it is highly selective. Snedeker’s film illuminates some of these hidden practices, offering an uncomfortable commentary on the elite workings of racial power that operate even though city mandates have diversified many aspects of this multi-week celebration. This is a fraught process, and one of the most interesting tensions to arise in the film. For example, Snedeker reflects on how unwelcome her African American boyfriend would be in the organizations her family has belonged to for decades. She reveals the denigration of those outside this krewe, in part through the management of debutantes like Emily, which the film depicts in the way throughout the Carnival season. Emily balances parties at country clubs and horse racing tracks with her fittings for the perfect (white) dress for the pageant. At every turn, she must reproduce upper-class whiteness as an ideal, one that reinforces the exclusion of people of color, like Snedeker’s boyfriend. In these moments, Snedeker underscores the policing of racialized bodies to reinforce normative hierarchies. She, and others like her, form a part of an idealized white, upper-class identity in the American South.
These films are engaging and provocative pieces for the classroom. And each documentary could benefit from viewing it with the other: To Be a Miss deals more explicitly with race in a Latin American context, while By Invitation Only demonstrates its role in producing US-based forms of white nationalism. Viewed together, they powerfully reinforce the problematic ideals—racial, gendered, sexualized and other—of pageants and demonstrate how the pageant stage is a space that creates and reinforces norms that prioritize white, or white-passing, bodies in elite spaces.
To close, it is important to cast a critical eye on such pageants and their disciplinary work, but in a way that also recognizes how the stage can serve as a space for subversion, challenge, and joy. Indeed, for some participants, pageants provide a space to explore and negotiate power through their own bodies and identities. To address this aspect of the beauty industry, we recommend critical and intersectional work by scholars such as Marcia Ochoa, Oluwakemi Balogun, Zethu Matebeni, and Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, which connects pageants’ racial and gendered logics with those of sexuality, (dis)ability, faith, and beyond.1
1 Marcia Ochoa, Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Oluwakemi M. Balogun, “Cultural and Cosmopolitan: Idealized Femininity and Embodied Nationalism in Nigerian Beauty Pageants,” Gender & Society 26, no. 3 (2012): 357-81; Zethu Matebeni, “Contesting Beauty: Black Lesbians on the Stage,” Feminist Africa 21 (2016): 23-36; Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, “Writing the Nation on the Beauty Queen’s Body: Implications for a ‘Hindu’ Nation,” Meridians 4, no. 1 (2003): 205-27.