Miss Peru 2018 turned violence against women into morbid entertainment, not a ‘feminist protest’

Many saw the focus on violence against women at this year’s Miss Peru pageant as subversive and powerful, but the message was entirely contradictory.

Screenshot: YouTube

The male gaze was in full effect during the swimsuit portion of Miss Peru 2018, as the camera panned up contestants’ bodies, starting at their feet. The entire scene was bizarre — the women paraded across the stage, wearing gold bikinis and their best come-hither looks. To the side of the stage, Peruvian singer Leslie Shaw sang an emotive song about women’s empowerment called “Siempre Mas Fuerte” (Always Stronger). “Conquering fears, breaking the silence; feeling my power as a woman,” she sang.

Event organizer and former beauty queen Jessica Newton introduced the swimsuit portion with pseudofeminist propaganda:

“Every woman is unique and valuable. She is the owner of her thoughts, her actions, her dreams and most importantly, of her body. She is free to wear, do, and say whatever she wishes because she is the owner of her life. Nobody has the right to label her, to insult her, to harm her, and least of all, to touch her”.

Without a hint of irony, she continued: “Up next, the bathing suit contest!”

But even this was not the most absurd aspect of the segment. Images of newspaper headlines were projected on to a massive screen behind the bikini-clad women: “Man strangles woman with a cord;” “Man murders woman and her baby;” “Stalker stabs pregnant woman, runs away;” “63 women raped daily;” “Drunk man beats his wife to death.”

These were not just headlines, they were stories of women and girls abused or murdered by men. At the end of the swimsuit competition, contestants stood in front of an image of a severely bruised woman named Lady Guillen.

In 2015, the Peruvian Justice Department sentenced Guillen’s ex-boyfriend, Ronny Garcia, to four years in jail, but suspended his sentence, meaning he served no jail time and only had to pay a fine. He had been accused of kidnapping and domestic violence. By the time Guillen managed to escape from him, she had been held in Garcia’s house against her will for months. The night she ran away, Garcia had chewed off Guillen’s eyebrow and beaten her so badly that she couldn’t open her left eye. The sentencing provoked outrage in the country and raised awareness around the impunity of male violence. Yet the context for the violence Guillen and the other women endured was nowhere to be found during Miss Peru. Audiences didn’t even learn the names of the women whose attacks made headlines — the women who were used as props in this spectacle.

References to male violence against women were not limited to the swimsuit competition. Less than four minutes into the event, the women introduced themselves, the province they were representing, and, instead of stating their measurements (in typical beauty pageant fashion), stated statistics about violence against women in Peru.

“My name is Camila Canicoba and I represent the department of Lima. My measurements are 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country,” one contestant said. “I represent the constitutional province of Callaomy and my measurements are: 3,114 women victims of trafficking up until 2014,” Miss Peru 2018 winner Romina Lozano announced.

To many of us in the feminist movement, beauty pageants are a reminder of what should be a bygone era — a time when it was socially acceptable to openly objectify women. But what the Miss Peru pageant made clear is that this era is now.

While some may be attempting to modernize this old-school practice, the existence of beauty pageants demonstrates that we live in a society that views and treats women as inferior, and as commodities. The violent headlines displayed during Miss Peru 2018 juxtaposed with a decidedly sexist event is not meant to confuse the audience or come across as hypocritical, but to (presumably) raise awareness. In fact, many considered it a “feminist protest.”

The contradiction in this attempt to cash in on the movement to end violence against women sweeping Latin America and the Caribbean should be obvious, but mainstream media bought it unquestioningly. An article by Rachel Epstein at Marie Claire titled, “These Miss Peru contestants just completely broke this traditional pageant rule and it was so badass,” declared that this act “completely changed the game.” What game? Patriarchy? How does listing incidences of male violence against women alongside objectified women change anything for women?

Many feminist media outlets also failed to connect the dots and understand how promoting objectifying practices connects to violence against women.

At Bust, writer Molly McLaughlin argued that the fact this “protest” took place within a beauty pageant is cause for celebration. She writes:

“A beauty pageant is one of the last places you would expect to see a feminist protest. But that is exactly what happened during the Miss Peru 2018 pageant, when the contestants took the opportunity to draw attention to the extreme levels of violence against women in their country. In the portion of the pageant in which they would usually repeat their body measurements to the camera and judges, all 23 women gave statistics about femicide. Then, in the bathing suit section, images of newspaper headlines about missing and murdered women were projected onto the screen behind the contestants.”

McLaughlin considered this beauty pageant-sponsored protest to be “particularly subversive considering the objectification and imposition of Eurocentric standards that beauty pageants usually reinforce in places like Peru.” But even in the Global South, the women who are permitted to compete in beauty pageants must fit within very narrow, colonialist beauty standards. After all, beauty pageants were created and are exported by the Global North, and although the skin colour of some contestants might vary, other Eurocentric definitions of beauty remain; like the emphasis on tiny noses, thinness, and sleek, straight hair.

Although the so-called protest was reported as being a contestant-driven initiative, the pageant’s organizers and hosts made clear that the “theme” this year was violence against women, repeatedly explaining that the entire pageant was dedicated to “respecting women and violence prevention.”

This is no coincidence. In recent years, feminism in Latin America and the Caribbean has explicitly centered the issue of violence against women. Last October, over 100,000 people took to the streets in Argentina (where a woman is murdered every 36 hours) to protest the gruesome femicide of Lucia Perez Montero. Similar protests were replicated throughout the continent on what was called “Black Wednesday.”

It was a sly move by the organizers of Miss Peru to feature a parade of women listing decontextualized facts about violence against women, and present the event itself as part of the movement against the epidemic. This move ensured the pageant would go viral and seem modern, despite the whole spectacle being inextricably rooted in women’s subordination and subservience.

As Spanish writer Barbijaputa argues at El Diario, stating facts about violence against women in a beauty pageant doesn’t change anyone’s attitude about that violence or about women’s rights. She writes:

“The vast majority of society still thinks that the motive [for violence] is biology: that men can’t control their ‘sexual instincts’ and women can’t defend themselves because they are weaker. Stating facts about violence against us makes it seem as if this is inevitable: ‘It’s just the way it is,’ ‘men are crazy,’ ‘I wish it didn’t happen but we can’t fight nature.’”

In other words, without understanding why men commit violence against women and without addressing the system that excuses and normalizes male dominance, we cannot successfully combat male violence.

A truly subversive act might have been for contestants to make statements that challenge the objectification of women. Barbijaputa suggests some alternate scripts for pageant contestants:

“I am Miss Tarapoto, and girls and women don’t die; each one of them had a man who killed them. Men are educated to think of themselves as superior to us, while we are being measured by our hips.”

Or perhaps, “I am Miss Cuzco and coming out here in a bathing suit so that men can judge whether or not I am beautiful is sexism and sexism kills.”

Instead, what Miss Peru came up with was little more than a marketing strategy that, in the end, still serves patriarchy. The event’s organizers and Latina, the TV channel that aired and sponsored the pageant, don’t have to pretend to care about women’s rights or liberation any other day of the year.

Peruvian writer Lara Salvatierra points out that Latina has “a misogynist editorial line” and routinely airs content that demeans and objectifies women, “including a TV show which ridicules Indigenous women and girls.”

She writes:

“The fact that it went viral speaks to the guidelines of a patriarchal system: a woman may demand justice, as long as she doesn’t try to escape the mold and the gender roles that the system has approved for her. Patriarchy will always search for ways to naturalize its existence. There is nothing empowering in modeling in a bikini to entertain the same misogynists who then violate us, commercialize us, and kill us.”

In a beauty pageant, women are presented to be ogled and enjoyed for an hour or two, as pretty objects. Once objectified, they are put through a process in which, one by one, they are eliminated from the competition. In other words, beauty pageants present women as intrinsically disposable. This is the same thought process that legitimizes the discarding of women under patriarchy, through male violence.

What is an audience meant to feel or think as they read, “Man strangles woman with a cord,” while a young woman parades across the stage in a bikini, desperately seeking male approval and adhering to patriarchal standards of beauty and complacency?

How this capitalist marketing ploy could be interpreted as empowering or liberating is beyond me. But, as Salvatierra points out, this type of “feminist protest” is the kind of activism that a patriarchal system favours the most: one in which women voice opposition to their oppression, but do it within the bounds of the role the system constructed for them.

As feminism advances in society, the ratings for beauty pageants have been on the decline for decades. More and more people realize that there’s something fundamentally sexist about the idea of judging women based on how well they perform the rituals of femininity. It’s likely Peru pageant organizers realize this and decided to use a feminist issue to propel their viewership numbers.

To eradicate male violence, we must do away with all institutions that sustain and legitimize it. Based on declining interest, perhaps beauty pageants are among the finalists to be discarded next. I suppose that is a feminist victory after all.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.

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  • Tove

    Fantastic article. Seeing even radical feminists celebrate a beauty pageant (and calling this subversive) because they stated stats, as if that alone was doing something, was quite the experience. You nailed it.

  • fxduffy

    This hearkens back to the Virginia Slims cigarette ads in the 1970s… the “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” campaign with its sexy, fashionably slim models whose liberation, equality, and rebellion is equated with the act of smoking.

    But this in-your-face co-optation pales before this Peruvian beauty contest. This is so blunt as to be outright criminal. The disconnect is as extreme as the Trump presidency. And the colonization as insidious as Transgender.

    It’s also extremely blatant in its connection of sexual violence news stories and headlines with titillating sex. In sum, the whole event is nothing more than a barely deceptive sadistic backlash against women’s gains.

    • Just Passing Through

      Excellent comment on this disgusting nightmare of an event…

  • Hekate Jayne

    From the post:
    “What is an audience meant to feel or think as they read, “Man strangles woman with a cord,” while a young woman parades across the stage in a bikini, desperately seeking male approval and adhering to patriarchal standards of beauty and complacency?”

    Is it possible for males to get 2 erections at once?

    Because lots of them love violence against us, and it gives them a boner.

    Looking at a nearly naked woman while reading a headline about a male strangling a woman is going to be really exciting. It is like a bonus.

  • Hekate Jayne

    Thank you for putting this into words. This didn’t sit well with me and I was having trouble explaining it. Thank you.

    If there is one thing that males have taught us about them, it is all of their limited thought processes are halted by their boner. Their bodies are just so uncontrollable, that it is sometimes impossible. That is what they say.

    Their boner makes it impossible for them to hear a fully clothed woman say “no” or “stop”. But I am supposed to believe that a nearly naked woman is being heard by males? When speaking in full sentences about a topic that males ignore and deny?

    Why am I supposed to believe that?

    • Jani

      The stupid pornsick fuckers would just press the mute button and carry on drooling. We really need to take back feminism and use it against this shit. This IS the dystopian future and it’s a nightmare.

    • BornACrone

      “But I am supposed to believe that a nearly naked woman is being heard by males?” This is pretty much all of it right here. They never listen to us anyway, and when we’re fuckable, that goes triple. Like I said in another comment, it’s not their dicks and their brains that can’t operate at the same time, it’s their dicks and their hearts.

  • Yisheng Qingwa

    …the revolution will not be televised.

    • cday881@gmail.com

      Nor will it be pornified.

  • lk

    Even before I read the article, just that screenshot of the image of the abused woman behind the women in bikinis, high heels and makeup just made me extremely uncomfortable.

    What about this constitutes a protest?!

    And I’m curious to know if the pageant company/network actually did anything to impove the material conditions of any women in Peru-like donate money or goods to charities that help female victims of violence.

    As always, I think Ms. Sanchez has written an excellent article…but I take issue with one thing: “As feminism advances in society, the ratings for beauty pageants have been on the decline for decades. More and more people realize that there’s something fundamentally sexist about the idea of judging women based on how well they perform the rituals of femininity.”

    Yes, pageants are sexist but I dont think ratings have gone down b/c people have realized this…I think ratings have gone down because there are so many other ways to see sexualized women that you no longer have to sit through a 3 hour pageant-online porn, men’s magazines, advertisements, music videos and etc.

    • Akasha the Dark

      It’s the complete opposite to a protest, it’s the perfect destillment of modern day patriarchy.
      On the one side, human women dressed and made up (undressed better said), and shown off for consumption, then humiliated and progressively eliminated from the viewer’s sight.
      On the other side, human women brutalised, violated and killed, literally eliminated physically… then that violence is shown off for consumption.
      And to finish it off, a good, liberal dusting of magic ’empowerment’ fairy dust, in which the same human women must repeat the patriarchy’s new affirmation ‘I am free, I am powerful, I am human’, lest any one observing might have their doubts…

    • Akasha the Dark

      I have to agree with you completely about the decline in ratings for these kind of shows, much as I would like it to be an indication of progress, it’s much more likely to be due to our living in a full blown porn society with global outreach – the stuff is ten seconds away on a mobile phone…

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea

    Sisters, I’ll be honest. I’ve been a fan of beauty pageants since my childhood years or around the time the Ms. U pageant was held in my home-country. Years later, I even acceded to a request by my close friend who was then a professor at a local college to join the panel of judges at a collegiate beauty pageant. The last time I avidly watched a beauty pageant was during the 2015 Miss U until eventually my interest dwindled esp. as I began to ponder the worth of such contests. Only then did I shockingly and shamelessly realise that I’m helping to enable and perpetuate gender stereotypy and objectification of women which I so loathe and I’m ardent against. Evidently, the AVAW concept-ploy used in the Ms. Peru pageant made the whole event a mere mystification, double mockery, an extra insult -to the injury sustained by the victims, -to the cause we are passionately fighting for. Down with the oppressive, fantastical, and disgusting standards set by the patriarchy!

    • Hekate Jayne

      You know what, though?

      Becoming a radical feminist is not a single event. It is a process. It is long and painful. And difficult.

      I am horrified at some of the shit that 20 year old me did. And I am even more horrified at the shit that 25 year old me did. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I hated women.

      And as a result, I hated myself.

      It is a really long and boring story and no one wants to hear it anymore than I want to tell it. But I have vivid memories of trying to assert myself with some pride and dignity only to be shoved back into my lower place with commentary about how I was being “unladylike” or “unfeminine” and I needed to control my emotions.

      And I allowed males to push me back down. Because the only way that I could see to walk through was to pander to males.

      My process has taken years. As uncomfortable as it is and as angry as it makes me, I now love the process. Because it has made me free. And proud.

      And I get to walk it with a bunch of kick ass women that are not afraid to tell males to go fuck themselves.

  • Emily Erin de Castrique

    Thank you for writing about this because I didn’t know all the information about this situation before this article. I didn’t see the whole thing, just the clip of the women naming statistics instead of their measurements. In that context I thought the contestants were breaking the rules and revolting independently of the pageant they were competing in and I was excited about it–I naively thought maybe they were doing their make-up and hair and all simultaneously realized how wrong beauty pageants are and how it connects to male violence against women and it was a coup or something. Wishful and irrational thinking, I know.

    In terms of mainstream American-conciousness I do think it will get some people to think differently (because that clip went viral here) but ultimately will lead them to the wrong conclusion and people will continue to not understand why beauty pageants are a bad thing and part of women’s oppression.

  • Jani

    If this isn’t sexualising violence against women, I don’t know what is. Talk about cognitive dissonance. Reading this article has seriously fucked with my mind. I can’t imagine what kind of sicko fuckup porn addict thought up this idea. It’s disturbing in the extreme.

  • Wren

    This whole spectacle is completely porny and nothing else. It’s almost snuff porn considering they showed images of some deceased women. They put scantily clad, pornified women in front of images of brutal violence against women, so men who are watching are aroused by the women and simultaneously stimulated (for lack of a better word) by the images of brutal violence AGAINST WOMEN. This is how we create rapists, people.

    • Hekate Jayne

      This was exactly my thought.

      Males love sexualized violence against us. That pageant gave males nearly naked women AND violence against women pics and headlines, simultaneously.

      Males thought that they were getting a fucking twofer.

      And it passes for fucking feminism. Really.

      • Just Passing Through

        Really really sick stuff. Vomit inducing stuff!

  • Omzig Online

    Raquel Sanchez, I have much to say on the topic, but I would like to first state how much I’ve enjoyed reading everything you’ve written for Feminist Current. Thank you so much for giving us so much great content!

    • lk

      I totally agree…Ms. Sanchez does an amazing job with the articles she writes here!!

  • Elmer Fenderpuddy

    Wonderful article.

    “The vast majority of society still thinks that the motive [for violence] is biology: that men can’t control their ‘sexual instincts’ and women can’t defend themselves because they are weaker. Stating facts about violence against us makes it seem as if this is inevitable: ‘It’s just the way it is,’ ‘men are crazy,’ ‘I wish it didn’t happen but we can’t fight nature.”

    This ‘biology mentality’ is all over the place lately, and I see so many men (and women …especially those in sciences) use biology/evolution as an excuse for sexist/misogynistic male behaviours. It’s as if hanging with the science-boys protects you, when the truth is that it too is somewhat like a veneer “that a patriarchal system favours”.

    Males need to own up to their behaviours plain and simple.

  • foamreality

    Aaaaaagh! (not the article, that was great). I’m starting to wonder, is it that people really are just thick as pigshit? Bust. How does that exist?

  • Akasha the Dark

    I too long for that day… but I wonder if it will ever come.
    Women have been inhuman for so long, and our inhumanity is so deeply ingrained into our cultures (in plural, as in most of the world’s) and even into our own psyches, that it sometimes seems impossible to even imagine such a day…

    We actually have to translate these instances into other oppressions in order to see them for what they are (no offense FierceMild, yours is an utterly brilliant and appallingly chilling analogy)