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.”
“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.