Are Beauty Pageants Archaic?


“What would you say to someone who believes that pageants are archaic?” During the question and answer portion of Miss Universe 2018, this was the question that left me pondering the most.

It was a bold question that the Miss Universe Organization seemed to want to address, aware that beauty pageants have had opposition for many years.

When I heard the word archaic, images of gladiators fighting in large Roman amphitheatres, flashed in my mind. Today, no one knows a living gladiator. We only get a glimpse of their lives and existence through movies like Spartacus  and Gladiator. Large Roman amphitheatres where they once fought are now mere ruins that tourists visit.

Those who have some knowledge about gladiators understand that they belong to an ancient period, one that no longer exists today. By that definition, many will agree to say that gladiators are archaic.

However, some could also argue that although we no longer sit atop large circular, open-air venues to watch two armored men with swords kill each other, gladiator games still exist today through blood sports. In today’s society, some people believe that ‘toned down’ versions of gladiator sport like boxing, muay thai, and mixed martial arts are just that – toned down, but still every bit as barbaric. To some people, although the term gladiator may be archaic, the principle of it is still present today in combat sports.

To them, combat sports athletes are modern day gladiators, and the best of the best from these sports are certainly rewarded for their victories that past gladiators could only dream of – money, fame, and a glamorous life.

This brings me back to the question at hand: are beauty pageants archaic? In many countries around the world, pageants are ubiquitous and are thriving businesses. Technically speaking, the mere fact that beauty pageants still exist today mean that they are not archaic. However, I understand that when people ask and debate that question, they are really referring to certain characteristics and components of the beauty pageant competitions.

Some women and men are at odds with many things about beauty pageants, many of which they find archaic. In the minds of those who strongly oppose beauty pageants, these competitions are archaic because they are objectifying and demeaning to women and are thereby anti-feminists. Many find them, particularly the swimsuit competition, to be a sexist charade where men drool over women. Indeed, the Miss Universe organization is very much aware of this growing sentimentality that, for the first time ever, they purposely only sought female judges. It felt unusual – yet refreshing – to have only female judges. In past competitions, not only would viewers look at the female contestants, but cameras would also zoom into the male judges’ reactions, particularly in the evening gown and swimsuit competitions.

Since the judges are seeing these women up close and personal, it was as if we were looking at their reactions to get feedback on how beautiful, sexy, charming, and bright these contestants were. The male judges would often smile coyly, cognizant of how lucky they are to be surrounded by all these beautiful women, yet also keenly aware that too much outward show of enthusiasm could trigger a barrage of negative reactions from those who may view them as sexists. Their reactions then have to walk a fine line between admiration and conservatism.

As viewers, sometimes we find the judges’ reactions humorous…and at times, we also feel their discomfort. Most of us can agree that judging “beauty” must be a difficult task. It is not a game show like Jeopardy where there is a clear winner. A panel of judges determines the winner by scoring them in different segments, usually composed of evening gown and swimsuit rounds, followed by the semi-finalists competing in the question and answer portion.

Some viewers have their favorites picked out even before the preliminary competitions, and even those who only watch the final night of competition can’t help but have a favorite by the end of the night. The competition is truly subjective because our own upbringing and environment influence our definition of beauty, poise, and grace. Yet, in many ways, this subjectivity parallels many things in real life, like job interviews, where first impressions matter most, and the candidate who seems to be the most well-put-together is the one who gets the job.

Despite debates and controversies, beauty pageants are here to stay, for now. Yet, like gladiator sport, pageants will need to evolve with the times. They (particularly the large international pageant organizations like Miss Universe) need to have a clearer sense of their vision for what the competition hopes to accomplish. Is it a beauty pageant, or is it to empower women? It seems that they want both, or at least say it’s doing both. But it will never perfectly be in the middle. These pageant organizations need to decide which end of the spectrum they would like to lean more towards – the pageantry aspect or the female empowerment one. Then, they need to make changes to the competition accordingly to reflect those values.

Share your thoughts. Are pageants archaic? If you were to redesign pageants, what would you change? What would you take away, and what would you add?

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