MISS WORLD BELIZE: GLOBALISM, LOCALISM AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF BEAUTY.

 

 

Richard Wilk
Anthropology Department|
326 Student Building
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

Copyright 1998. 

INTRODUCTION

There is no way to judge a beauty pageant objectively, since beauty is by definition indefinable and unmeasurable (Lakoff & Scherr 1984). So beauty pageants must be about something else, something deeply subjective. By bringing that something else out into public and objectifying it, pageants become an important comparative stage, a place where the politics of value become visible.

At every level, pageants are a process of selection and representation, of making highly public choices that assert some kind of collective identity. As such they are always arenas for the definition of locality, for inclusion and exclusion. But when this local choice is then exhibited on a wider stage, as part of a hierarchical structure, the pageant becomes much more than this. It is forced into a discussion, implicit or explicit, of the relationship between the local and the regional, national and international.

My own exposure to Beauty pageants in Belize was mostly accidental. I was working on imported consumer goods, and the historical roots of the Belizean preference for foreign goods over local products. While I wanted to talk about canned meat and peanut butter, the people I spoke with kept bringing up pageants. These were the places, they said, where local values and imported foreign ones collided on stage. And when I opened my eyes I found pageants literally everywhere; from the annual national pageants down to Queen competitions at rural village festivals and popularity contests in the High Schools. The economic order was mirrored by a "Sugar Queen," a "Citrus Queen," and "Miss Agriculture." The spatial organization of the nation state was paralleled by a hierarchy of village, district and national competitions. The political was reflected by the presence of two national competitions, each founded and managed by one of the major political parties. Ethnic diversity was a common theme in many pageants, but ethnic movements have also held their own events, as with "Miss Afro-Honduras" in 1970, the "Miss Panamericana" competition and "Miss Garifuna."

The most recent trend is age segmentation. In 1985 the Minister of Youth and Culture promoted a Miss Youth pageant, which drew contestants from five other countries in the Caribbean. During 1989 there were local and national Miss Teen and Miss Preteen competitions, as well as Ms Elegant, Ms Middle Age and Ms Maturity.

In other papers I have traced the history of beauty pageantry in Belize, from its beginnings among pro-colonial loyalist fraternal lodges in 1946 (Wilk 1992, 1993a, 1993b). I have been particularly interested in the relationship between the growth of party politics and the pageants, and also the ways that pageants have both furthered and subverted various nationalist and nation-building programs over the last half century. I have also argued that pageants organize and structure Belizeans' notions of difference, that they naturalize and essentialize gender, age, ethnicity and the spatial order of the nation state. My argument so far has been that pageants as an institution often serve the state's goals of "domesticating difference," of channeling potentially dangerous social divisions into the realm of aesthetics and taste. Pageants are thus part of a "safe zone" for the expression of social and economic differences through secular ritual, music, arts and dance.

Today I want to concentrate on the kinds of divisions and differences that are not contained or channeled or resolved by the drama of the beauty pageant in Belize, differences that are rooted in the subordinate political and economic position that Belize occupies in the global order. Beauty pageants can never avoid raising this issue, for their very form is an expression of the global power of United States, where the institution was given in its modern form by the great impresario P.T. Barnum in 1854 (Banner 1983). The Miss America pageant is an archetype and model for most national competitions in the world, which are now usually local franchises of the Miss Universe or Miss World corporations, profit making concerns owned and operated in the United States and England. Pageantry is an explicitly globalizing framework, which subordinates and organizes world diversity into very narrow channels.

 

Local and Global, Part 1

 

Pageantry could be seen as a classic case of cultural imperialism; an imported institution that imposes a western form of sexual objectification. Of course we know the story is actually much more complex, that local groups and interests have actually taken the raw material of the pageant, and have adapted and used it for their own very local purposes. This is a process akin to what De Certeau calls "poaching," whereby consumers rework and remake the raw material of the marketplace into something distinctly their own, thereby escaping domination (1984: xiii). In this way a foreign or global institution is taken out of its original context and made local; it is reappropriated and naturalized into a different system.

The conduct of Belizean pageants is in fact intensely local. Understanding and decoding the events on stage requires a great deal of contextual knowledge; the crowd is engaged in heated speculation about the political backing of each contestant, their family connections and hairdressers, their love lives, and their backstage maneuvers (see Cohen 1991). Much of the performance at the pageant is explicitly aimed at turning the pageant into a uniquely Belizean event - many costumes are explicitly local, the talent displays are often nationalist skits, ethnic dances or dialect monologues. And the finalists are asked to answer questions about the country's unique history and geography.

But are Belizeans successful in poaching the foreign form and turning it to their own purposes? Are pageants naturalized and Belizeanized and appropriated, another global form that has been successfully adapted, domesticated and defanged? In some subtle ways, I think not. The global has become local, but at the same time, the local has become global.

 

Local and Global, Part 2

 

The conflict between local and foreign becomes most obvious in the pageants when we raise the question of standards of beauty. A constant refrain among the audience, organizers and participants is the conflict between Belizean standards of beauty, and those favored by international competitions. The organizers of the national pageants complain that the contestants who please a Belizean audience can never win at Miss World or Miss Universe.

As one organizer said, "The [international] judges like tall, thin and beautiful girls. In Belize they like girls who are shorter--here 5 feet 6 inches is tall, and stockier. To qualify for Belizean men, you must have some shape, you must have bust and hips. It's something completely different. If you choose a girl for the international competition the Belizean men will say "E too maaga." [she's too thin] Bones alone, not enough flesh. But them [foreign] judges will look at the Belizean girl and say "E too fat." Spectators often criticize the winners of the national pageants as being too thin ("switchy"); saying they prefer to see a winner who is "quick time with a big body," ("mamfi," "swarty").

So instead of consensus, at the center of the national pageant there is a collision is between local standards of beauty, deeply embedded in notions of gender and sexuality, and international standards which are those of the dominant white nations of the north. The widespread awareness of this difference is the crucial link between the local scene and the global drama. While Belizean pageants are full of local, contextualized meaning, they are performed and observed with an intimate awareness of the global gaze. Foreigners do not even have to be present to watch the local competition (though they are often included on the panel of judges), because the global standard has become an ever-present "significant other" by which the local is defined and judged. Foreign pageants are a popular feature on local cable TV.

 

Local and Global, Part 3

 

It would be a mistake to see this conflict as something new, a recent artifact of dominant global institutions and local resistance to them. Instead, this is a long-standing confrontation in the Caribbean. In Belize the whole conception of the local has emerged, first under slavery, then during the rigid racism of British Empire. For 350 years the people of Belize have been confronted with metropolitan standards of beauty and value, embedded in dominant religious, political and educational institutions. These standards have percolated downwards and all Belizeans are aware of them--most believe that light skin and straight hair are desirable, and they may disparage each other as "black pots" and "bushy."

But this dominance has never been complete; there is another conceptions of beauty in Belize, with very different values from the metropolitan standard. This second register is not simply a negation of the first, a simple form of resistance. The two coexist in a kind of aesthetic diglossia.

The two standards of beauty are closely associated with two different sets of cultural values, which can be glossed with Wilson's famous dichotomy of "reputation" and "respectability." The interplay of reputation and respectability in beauty pageantry is especially complex and intriguing, for the pageant is one of the few public events where the two kinds of value come into direct confrontation, and where this confrontation can be in some way resolved.

Let me give you an example from the village of Crooked Tree, a community of about 700 people, which chose a Queen at the first annual Cashew festival this year. The young woman they chose is well known as the best student the local school has had in years; she comes from a widely respected family of an average economic position, and is above reproach by local standards of morality. Most people in the community, even the other losing contestants, seem quite happy with the choice and with her conduct at the fair. She is the archetype of the local queen, what Frank Deford (1971:13) calls the "nice, sweet, reasonably pretty local girl, who lives in town, whom everybody knows..."

And while the values of respectability that she represents may not be shared by everyone in the village, they are known to everyone and their dominance is rarely challenged in public. As the product of consensus, she is the instrument of the hegemony of the popular, though an internal process of self-representation that has its own politics.

As Stoeltje & Bauman point out (1989) at this level the pageant can be seen as a symbolic expression of a prevailing order. This order, in Crooked Tree and many other Belizean communities includes the dominance of respectability over reputation, of church, school and home versus sexuality, fertility, clubs and "the street." The Queen was chosen to represent respectability, in a community where everyone knows the difference between the "church gyaal" (study brains, home gyaal, clean, decent, choosy, upright, who holds herself up), and the loose woman (low, vamp up, engine, fire crotch, loose, good finuttin) who has children by many different men ("patchwork children").

The problem is that Miss Crooked Tree is more than a respectable church gyaal with a high school diploma, she is also an attractive, sexy, and fertile young woman, an object of passion. Furthermore, in order to win the pageant she has to expose herself in public to the sexual gaze of all the men in the village. While reputation and respectability are usually presented as opposites, in the person of the Queen they reach an accommodation. It turns out they cannot do without each other, and can even be combined.

The contradictions are powerful because they speak to tensions within the larger society that are inscribed and impressed in the bodies and minds of every Belizean. Beauty is a matter of cultural politics in Belize, and the duality of beauty also reflects the profound contradictions between womens' roles in society; what is especially intriguing is that similar issues are raised by pageantry in the USA. Susan Dworkin, writing about Bess Myerson (1945 Miss America), says "The conflict built into the foundation of all beauty contests, between the self-esteem of the woman and her public role as a sex object.[is].hot and potentially explosive." (1987:182).

 

Local and Global, Part 4

 

When public judgments are made about a complex and contentious issue like beauty or talent, the issue of power is not far behind the scenes. I want to suggest that in pageants there are always at least two discourses of power. The first is the contest between local powers who back individual contestants. In a village this may mean the shopkeeper against the school principal, or two or more religious denominations, businesses, kin factions, schools or ethnic groups. The second discourse of power is about the autonomy and authority of the local stage in relation to powers at other social and political levels and in regional, national and international institutions.

As long as the Crooked Tree Cashew Queen remains in the village and goes no further, her choice speaks to village concerns, and the consensus she represents is aimed at local differences. The universalistic assertions that lie behind her selection remain implicit. But the Cashew Queen may also be called upon to represent the community to others, and may join other competitions outside the community. At this point she becomes a crucial focus for the representation of difference, for the standards she will be judged on in the wider arena are different from those used in the community. This shift in standards marks a crucial rupture, for it is the aperture through which hierarchy enters.

Everyone in the village knows the woman who won the title of Cashew Queen, and this knowledge played a crucial part in the judging. The criteria spoke directly to the political structure of the village, and the local values she represented. But if Miss Crooked Tree wants to go on to compete for Miss Belize, she will be judged on a different basis, for purposes framed at an entirely different level.

This is a general characteristic of pageants in most countries. Deford found the same thing in his study of Miss Wilson in North Carolina (1971); what makes a winner at the local level is rarely important at the next stage of competition. The judges and audience at a district-level competition in Belize tend to look for a different balance of reputation and respectability, of beauty and talent. And when the district winner goes on to compete at the national level for Miss Belize, Miss World Belize, or Queen of the Bay, she will be judged by still other standards.

So while pageants often appear to create consensus, they also inevitably raise the issue of hierarchy and dominance, and they drive home the way the modern political world order creates cultural order. The continuing lesson is that the local is subordinated to the national, and the national to the global. The structure of pageantry makes a place for local differences at every level, but it contains those differences, channels them and ultimately transcends them at the next level of competition.

 

Conclusions: Globalism & Hegemony

 

The key point here is not that the pageants and competitions eliminate differences. They are not hegemonic tools that create homogeneity. All they do is provide a common channel and a point of focus for the debate and expression of difference. They take the full universe of possible contrasts between nations, groups, locales, factions, families, political parties and economic classes, and they systematically narrow our gaze to particular kinds of difference, projected onto women's bodies and thereby made to seem "natural." They organize and focus debate, and in the process of foregrounding some contrasts, they submerge and obscure others. They standardize a vocabulary for describing difference, reiffying categories like beauty, talent and fashion, and produce a common frame of organized distinction. They essentialize some kinds of differences as ethnic, physical and immutable, and portray them as measurable and scalable characteristics, washing them with the legitimacy of objectivity. And they use these distinctions to draw systemic connections between disparate parts of the world system.

These connections involve previously separated groups into a common realm of competition, forming a global structure that organizes diversity and turns it into what I call common difference. So the diverse characteristics of multiethnic Belizeans become comparable with each other, they are brought into contention through being made structurally equivalent. People achieve categorical equality, but in the process they lose something.

At a higher level, Belize itself can then become intelligible as one national culture among all the other unique nations that make up a global pageant. On stage at the Miss Universe pageant, Miss Belize asserts that her nation is the equal of any other, but is anyone really deceived?

 

 

References Cited

 

Abrahams, Roger 1983 The Man-of-Words in the West Indies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Banner, Lois 1983 American Beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Certeau, Michel de 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohen, Colleen 1991 Queen Contestants in a Contested Domain: Staging National Identity in the Post-Colonial Caribbean. Paper presented at the 90th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago.

Deford, Frank 1971 There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. New York: Viking.

Dworkin, Susan 1987 Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story. New York: Newmarket Press.

Lakoff, Robin and Raquel Scherr 1984 Face Value: The Politics of Beauty. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Stoeltje, Beverly and Richard Bauman 1989 "Community Festival and the Enactment of Modernity." in Robert Walls and George Shoemaker, eds., The Old Traditional Way of Life. Bloomington: Trickster Press. pp. 159-171.

Wilk, Richard 1992 "I Would be Proud to be a Belizean--If I Could Figure out what a Belizean Is." Paper presented at conference "Defining the National," Lund, April 1992.

----- 1993a Learning to Be Local in Belize: Global Systems of Common Difference. Paper presented at the decennial meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth. Oxford, July 1993.

----- 1993b Miss World Belize: Globalism, Localism and the Political Economy of Beauty. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association: Acapulco, Mexico, March 23-27, 1993.

Wilson, Peter 1973 Crab Antics. New Haven: Yale University Press.