How Feminism Missed the Balkans: Part 2

Image The “Miss AUBG” beauty pageant at the university where I teach was last night and I did not go this year.  I just couldn’t do it.

You might remember that last year I went with a team of my students to film all the action for a documentary that we were making in my production class (see link below to get to watch it). I wrote about that experience in a post called  “Sex, Brains and Videotape: How Feminism Missed the Balkans” which you can read here.   That was the first time I had ever been exposed to a beauty pageant at the university level and, to be honest, it’s still surprising to me that this exists at all, especially at my progressive American-style liberal arts private college in Bulgaria, called “AUBG” for short.

I think the part that still surprises me the most is the main goal of the event, which is cheerfully written in the Facebook page for the event:

“Come experience the atmosphere of glamour, grace and beauty.”

Even in the recruiting video for contestants (watch it here) the only “skill” that is mentioned is being “sexy” and “hot.”  Here are photos of the candidates who answered the ad. Now let me just say that I’m not some old fogey (or at least I hope not). There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful and sexy. In fact, I believe that a woman should feel good about herself and I try my best to look decent on most days.  So I am a fan of beauty. But my problem with this pageant is that there’s not even a pretense that any of this is about brains, too.  We are an American university and I think we should be promoting the American value of being beautiful and smart.

In the U.S., the “Miss America” pageant at least pretends to be about brains by awarding a scholarship to the winners. All contestants are asked to have a “platform” of a cause they believe in (helping starving children in some foreign country, supporting cancer research, etc.) and are expected to perform community service all year in that area.  Why not add this element to the Miss AUBG pageant?  Why not at least try to make it about a little bit more than just being the hottest chick on campus?

I think I know why.

Now that I’ve been here for a second year, I am starting to understand this part of the world a bit better. I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Personally,  I wouldn’t want to win anything based on how my body compares with other women or how hot I am. But that’s just me.

Why do I feel this way? Well, first and foremost I suppose it’s because I’m a feminist. I have been sexually harassed in my workplace and I have had to tolerate unacceptable and unfair behavior by my male supervisors when I was younger. I rarely got paid as much as my male colleagues.  I prefer to be judged by what I can do, not by what I look like. But that’s me (and Gloria Steinem, the very first feminist, who talks about some of these issues in her new book).  In my mind, beauty pageants contribute to this way of thinking of a woman as a sexual object. Even if it’s all in good fun. Even if it’s for “personal growth.” I get that. I just can’t get behind it. I would like to think here at the American University in Bulgaria, we have an opportunity to encourage change, not contribute to the status quo.

(* To see the Miss AUBG documentary that my students made about the pageant last year, go to : http://mnk101.wix.com/missaubg#!home/mainPage    The trailer is on the home page, but to see the 30-minute documentary, click on “Watch Documentary” on the tab above the trailer and be sure to put in the password:  missaubgdoc)

Here is a photo of one of my students filming the pageant last year. Click here to see more “behind-the-scenes” pics from the pageant last year.

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23 thoughts on “How Feminism Missed the Balkans: Part 2

  1. I so agree and to this day have not watched a Miss America Pageant. Being a woman who has grown up feeling like I had to be the best on the outside to be liked, acknowledged and loved, and struggling with an eating disorder for years I have a real issue with BEAUTY PAGEANTS!!!

  2. By making Miss AUBG a beauty pageant, thus not asking general knowledge questions or personal opinion, the organizers minimized the probability of an event like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww. Most of miss AUBG contestants are not native speakers and some of them have never been in front of a large audience. Girls might get stressed and they can get in the same situation as Miss South Carolina in 2007 and that is a low kick for one’s “brainy” career or academic life. Miss America 2012 got an undergraduate degree in music in 2010 so I am looking forward to seeing what will she use the “Scholarship” for. About the community service… oh come on… Half of the Wisconsin Mass media was watching Laura, she had to be dumb to refuse doing community service. While teaching children of incarcerated parents for 1 year she got a lot of awards for community service and a large fun-club. I think there was a lot of feminism in Miss AUBG event and a nice talent show.

  3. As far as I know America and Western Europe are the biggest exporters of the hot-chic image to the rest of the world. It’s not the Eastern European syndrome or Russian either (where education is actually accessible to the girls the same way as for the guys). It is the whole culture of potmodernity, where the goal is to seem as something not to be someone.

  4. “I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.”
    I appreciate your point of view and your feminist position, but this is very offensive and rude.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Melody. I, too, am doing this week’s post (as a follow-up to my last week’s feminist rant) about the pageant and why its existence bothers me so much. Internalized misogyny is so much more upsetting. When women themselves are so readily giving up their rights and dignity, what’s the hope for educating men on this issue.

  6. Respectfully disagree with you on one point. I do not think that such formal appraisal to the “brains” as community service, scholarships or inclusions of small trivia questions would help. The very principle of the pageant show is so anti-woman, it hurts. There is a culture out there which celebrates only particular kinds of girls who do dancing, music, help poor, study hard etc. Ranking somebody on a “being-best-in-things-your-gender-should-do” scale with any sort of criteria adds up to the stereotypes and the “role” which some should try to fulfill. These shows are hopeless.

  7. With all of my respect, your criticism of Miss AUBG contest is somewhat nonconstructive and lacks the actual arguments or reasons against the event. The annual show is meant to be as another entertainment “party” with the specific program of AUBG females dancing and performing on stage (the activity most of the students are involved in every time they visit the club). Neither is there a deep philosophy to the event nor specific duties or responsibilities to-be-accepted by the winner (chairity, donation etc). In comparison to Miss USA or Miss Universe , this event has minimum sponsorship and this minimum financing is used to organize the contest and buy the prizes. Whereas, big beauty pageants and all of their participants are invested in with thousands and millions, having fan clubs and selling branded products around the world(talking about the waste of money and charity), In fact, most of the students at AUBG are involved in charity activities and Miss AUBG members are among those active members of the community. Adding the “brains-quest” to the pageant program? General questions for individual contestant have always been present in the show, and I do not think that accounting or math quiz on stage will be any appropriate given the circumstances.

  8. “I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.” I totally disagree with you on this point, because boys and girls have equal opportunities to go to school and college. There is no a single sign of sex discrimination at least in my country in the educational system. Of course, women will not get a job that requires ability to lift heavy objects. But when it comes to brainwork everybody is equal.

  9. Such interesting comments. Thanks for all your feedback. Whether I am making documentaries (www.frozenfeetfilms.com) or blogging, I really enjoy starting conversations and it looks like I did that 🙂

  10. The problem of Miss AUBG is that the organizers of this event are usually the former participants, and the majority of them are satisfied with the whole concept of the event.. Last year I participate myself (just wanted to try it out, cause the first organizer was my brother’s girlfriend) I was upset how the event is organized and why don’t Miss AUBG want something classy. This year me and a good friend of mine happen to participate in organizing process of the event. We tried really hard to persuade the president of the club to change the inner concept of Miss AUBG, make it official and more intellectual and, finally, relocate it from the night club to a real stage. As it turned out we spend out time and nerves for noting, as other organizers were against all of our ideas. We quited before the event for good.

  11. Pingback: Miss American University in Bulgaria – Yay or Nay? | A Matter of Fashion

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  14. “I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.”

    I think your discomfort with the beauty pageant is understandable, I feel similarly about all beauty pageants, but I wanted to respond to this passage as a fellow expat. You’re not alone in holding this opinion (it’s actually very common among American “experts” on Eastern Europe) but it’s rejected as absurd and insulting here. Why? I suspect it because it’s an American interpretation of a local manifestation of American culture being interpreted through the lens of American history.

    The idea that women should be allowed to work and get paid equally to men is a weird in Eastern Europe because it was a fundamental assumption of Soviet policy. There were Soviet women generals and fighter pilots in the 1940s (the US didn’t catch up until the 1980s), and there was never a time when women were excluded from workforce. Communism rejects commodification entirely so the commodification of women’s bodies as objects of desire has to be an imported phenomenon. (The video “Do Communists Have Better Sex?” introduces this history http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl_r7rIcds8 )

    We might find an explanation in the patriarchy of peasant culture, or the importance of status and prestige in the post-Soviet era, but the American narrative of women’s liberation really doesn’t fit Bulgaria. Or, if it does, it doesn’t fit comfortably.

  15. I apologize for the double post.
    I don’t understand why a beauty pageant should be about brains too. Personality maybe, but brains? These girls are students, so obviously they are already in a place where brains are valued and they are being assessed for how hard they work. If we judge brains in a beauty pageant, should we judge beauty in a competition where cognitive abilities matter?
    Bulgarian girls are encouraged from a young age to be smart. There are many competitions at school such as math competitions, olympiads in every subject and not to even mention all the art contests. Of course, it’s not always cool to participate in such events, “cool” kids don’t and those that win awards are “nerds” but that is absolutely the same for both boys and girls. Plus I have never ever heard that girls are not good at math in Bulgaria. I was very surprised that this stereotype exists in the US, here girls are encouraged together with boys and there’s no difference, really. Well, few women want to be engineers and that may be a problem but a beauty pageant? I don’t think so.
    BTW, in some universities there’s a pageant for the most handsome guy too.

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