When I was a kid, I remember being excited to watch the annual “Miss America” pageant. My father owned a chain of women’s clothing stores and he would sometimes sponsor the local “Miss Maryland” contest by donating clothes to contestants (he said it was great publicity for the stories). When it came time for the “Miss America” pageant, my family would gather round the TV set in our living room and watch the live event together. We all had a great time trying to guess who would win. We each had our own ballots and took notes and it was always exciting when “Miss Maryland” would place in some category (usually talent, to my father’s disappointment). So I certainly understand the pleasure of watching a pageant.
But when I got old enough to really understand what was really going on, I started refusing to watch the pageants. I argued with my parents about this because I didn’t think it was a good idea to objectify women like that. Why should women be judged on beauty and not on brains? I also wondered about these women. Why would they even want to be judged like that? I haven’t watched a pageant since.
So when I heard about the Miss AUBG pageant, I immediately thought it had to be a joke or a spoof of some kind. Yes, we are in the Balkans where women are very beautiful and beauty is valued, but we are also at an American University with American values. If this were a pageant happening at university in the States, I would imagine there would be huge protests against such a thing. I couldn’t imagine anyone here would want be involved. Boy, was I wrong. It appears that feminism skipped the Balkans. Here is the official description of the event:
<<Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant is a magnificent annual event where beautiful AUBG girls present themselves in front of the audience wearing various styles, dancing and demonstrating their individual talents. All the contestants are evaluated by the professional jury members on the basis of their charm and talent. The girls undergo extensive training in catwalk, dance and other skills in order to present themselves the best way. At the end of the Miss AUBG show, jury announces Miss AUBG of the year, Miss Audience, Miss Charm, Miss Talent and other awards granted by our sponsors and honorable guests>>
After reading this synopsis, I decided that I wanted to make a documentary about this subject. I thought it would be interesting to select a couple of the contestants and find out more about them (click here to see the contestants .http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.292408380833052.68504.287315831342307&type=1 . What was their motivation for participating? How did they think this would change their lives? What do their families and friends think about this?
As luck would have it, I’m also teaching a documentary production class this semester so I asked my students if they wanted to work with me as a team to make this documentary as a class project. They agreed (some reluctantly) and they spent the week leading up to the pageant doing interviews with students, faculty, administration, previous participants and founders as well as documenting 5 contestants as they prepared for the competition (see the class blog about the making of the documentary here: http://missaubgdoc.wordpress.com ). From rehearsals to classes to hanging out with boyfriends and friends to selecting their gowns and getting their hair done, my students were there every step of the way with the university’s trusty Nikon, Sony and Kodak cameras along with a couple of brand new wireless microphones. Some secrets were revealed… stories were shared…and many hours of footage was captured and backed up on a hard drive. One universal truth came from these interviews: these girls are not ashamed of their beauty or their sexuality and they don’t see a problem with sharing both on a stage for the world to see.
The night of the pageant, Club Xtreme was packed with men and women at 11 p.m. waiting for the show to start. My students were in position in several locations (including the dressing room) ready to capture all the action. The pageant opened with previous Miss AUBG participants, called “AUBG Angels,” doing a sexy dance in white short shorts and pink tank tops that said “I heart Miss AUBG.” (see video from that dance here: http://bit.ly/HFMybp ). From there, things got more outrageous as the contestants sashayed down the runway in skimpy bathing suits and showcased their talent (ballet, singing, dancing) and modeled skin-tight gowns. It was honestly shocking for me and it was the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to Bulgaria last year. But clearly I was in the minority because the rest of the audience was enjoying it.
Groups of guys drinking heavily chanted and cheered for their favorite contestants. Judges (ie; sponsors) with serious faces kept track of scores on their ballots (one was even snapping pictures of each girl as he “judged” them). And the show hosts kept the action going by asking questions to contestants like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?”
In the end, the “Miss This” and “Miss That” was announced while the previous “Miss AUBG” stood waiting in the wings to give her crown to the new winner. The room was filled with anticipation as the new Miss AUBG was announced. Cheers erupted and there were hugs all around when the winner was crowned. That moment felt like a loss for feminism, but a win for the documentary because one of the girls we were following is now wearing that crown.
The “Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant” exposes the vast gulf between what would be unacceptable at an American school and what is generally acceptable at the American University in Bulgaria. But filming the contestants also forced me to look at this competition from a new perspective within the cultural context of this region. These young women are not even a little bit ashamed as I would have expected. In fact, they are actually proud to participate in a beauty pageant. I hope our film will explore the complexities of this issue and reveal the inner beauty and brains of the contestants, something that was lost in the alcohol-fueled proceedings on pageant night.