Like many post-colonial nations, India’s fascination with beauty contests seems to be connected to transformations wrought by globalisation in a growing consumer society. For several decades now, beauty competitions have been staged with considerable pomp and pageantry at exclusive clubs, women’s colleges, and even high schools throughout the country. At the national level, Femina, India’s leading women’s magazine, organises an annual Miss India contest whose winners go on to participate in international competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe. These events regularly draw protests across the ideological spectrum, ranging from conservative Hindu nationalist groups to progressive women’s groups. While some see the beauty contests as cultural threats to traditional values and religious sentiments, others feel that the pageants are sexist in their attitudes toward femininity and derogatory to women.
At the same time the contests have inspired significant outpourings of national pride, as evinced when Miss India, Sushmita Sen, won the Miss Universe title in Manila in 1994. National enthusiasm grew even more intense when, later that year, India’s Aishwarya Rai was crowned Miss World in Sun City. In both cases, numerous protests were drowned by a chorus of patriotic celebration that hailed this peculiar play of fate in the lives of two young women as an omen of India’s rise to global prominence. Hindustan Times, the widely circulated English daily captured this sentiment when it announced Rai’s stunning victory with a bold headline on its front page,’World’s envy, India’s pride.’1
After Rai’s victory as Miss World, an overjoyed Sen exclaimed,’We have conquered the world,’2 an assessment that seemed to encapsulate this outpouring of national pride. The terms of this conquest were later explained by Sathya Saran, editor of Femina, who explained that India ‘is now more receptive to and more aware of the international look. We have adapted ourselves over the years and are now in tune with international standards.’3 Vimala Patil, former editor of the same women’s magazine, claimed that India’s stunning feat on the global beauty stage was possible not only because ‘Indian girls … are better prepared but because India has been in the eyes of the world thanks to its economic reforms.’4
Over the years, many participants in beauty pageants, like Zeenat Aman in the 1970s and Juhi Chawla in the 1980s, have influenced the media exposure from these events into highly successful careers in the Indian film industry. When Sen and Rai won the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns respectively in 1994, they were flooded with offers from celebrated directors and producers, not to mention other lucrative opportunities like modelling and product endorsements.5
More recently, the media coverage of beauty queens on the global stage has grown exponentially in India since the Miss World crown was brought home by Diana Hayden in 1997, Yukta Mookhey in 1999, and Priyanka Chopra in 2000, and the Miss Universe contest was won by Lara Datta in 2000.
Not surprisingly then, ‘the beauty business,’ as Jain puts it, ‘is an all-pervasive phenomenon’ in India that ’starts off with a Miss Beautiful contest in High school, goes on to chick-charts for the 10 most beautiful women in college and ends up at the Miss India extravaganzas which bring in fame, money and glamour.’ Thus, Jain finds that ‘now every girl worth her Barbie doll has extended her horizons to the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants.’6 Without falling prey to exaggeration, one must recognise that the success stories of contestants at Miss India and more recently Miss World and Miss Universe pageants have been few and far between. For every woman who triumphs at beauty pageants and rises to stardom in Indian films, there are millions of women whose dream is restricted to vicarious experience via tabloids and television. Consequently, the pervasive impact of this beauty economy is crucially attached to the media imagery it produces. Yet this same imagery, which is so significant to aspiring young women, is also passionately disturbing to other elements within Indian society who seek to resist the growing influence of the global beauty order.
In this paper, I examine how the intersection of global pageants, nationalist ideologies and feminist activism in the ‘beauty business’ produces and reproduces cultural tensions between the old and the new, tradition and modernity, patriarchal repression and feminine desire in India. I demonstrate how the ideological tensions among these diverse interests collided, quite literally, in the streets, in competition venues, and in the media representations of the Miss World competition held in Bangalore in 1996. I conclude that the growing prominence of beauty queens on the global stage has created a new cultural order in India where bodies, behaviours, and standards of femininity are abstracted into economic values that are often in direct conflict with religious, cultural and political values.
The Beauty and the Business
An explicit link between beauty and business is often made when analysing India’s recent rise to prominence in global competition. It is frequently pointed out that international sponsors are now flocking to the subcontinent in hopes of tapping into reputedly vast and growing Indian consumer markets7. Dispensing beauty titles is a relatively inexpensive way for commercial sponsors to build brand recognition among the country’s growing consumer class, which is estimated to be somewhere between 150 and 485 million people, depending on the type of product being marketed8. Calling India the ‘world’s largest emerging market,’ Noel V. Lateef, president of the Foreign Policy Association in New York, writes,’The pace at which India has adjusted to the transformative world market has surprised even the most cynical observers. Having made tough decisions to reform its economy, India is easily the most significant test case in the world for whether democracy and capitalism can triumph over mass poverty.’9 Consequently, many have commented that the attraction of India’s emerging consumer markets goes hand-in-hand with the attraction of its women on the global beauty stage.
The connections between the global trajectories of beauty and business in India are obviously more subtle and complex. At the very core of the beauty contest rests a set of presumptions about the process of modernisation and the ideological triumph of western capitalism during the post-World War II era. Forty years ago, in a series of lectures published under the title, Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, W. Walt Rostow–Harvard economist, presidential adviser, and Cold War strategist–outlined a path to development for post-colonial countries that ultimately concludes with the emergence of a social order that bears a striking resemblance to the United States. Taken as the norm, the ‘American way’ became the standard of capitalist ‘development’ promoted throughout the Cold War and has most recently reached its hegemonic apogee with the collapse of the so-called Second World of Communist states.
India, which had tried, for decades, to steer a non-aligned course by maintaining ties with both the first and second world powers in the west and east, respectively, now finds itself irresistibly drawn to the economic aid, investments, and development projects of the western bloc. Given such a shift in material conditions, it is not surprising then that popular attitudes about beauty contests should become a site of significant ideological struggle on the South Asian subcontinent. Many critics of globalisation in India hope to resist what anthropologist Mary H. Moran sees as the basic logic of the international beauty order. ‘Beauty contests,’ she writes, ‘operate internationally and cross-culturally within a discourse of evolutionary change that includes a hierarchical understanding of the relationship between centre and periphery.’10
Although some might offer alternative characterisations of the relationship between wealthy (core) and poor (peripheral) societies in international relations, it is hard to dispute Moran’s claim that the beauty pageant is a symbolic arena for the organisation of cultural differences on a global scale. Not only are the beauty standards and taste cultures of cosmopolitan societies conspicuously venerated at the very apex of these competitions but the relationship between city and country is structured into the contests as well.
Beauty contests are cast as part of the process by which rural areas overcome their isolation and backwardness. ‘This implicit evolutionary model,’ writes Moran, ‘assumes that economic and infrastructural alterations in the countryside will inevitably result in lifestyle changes bringing rural populations into contact with national and global cultural practices. For a small locality, far from the national capital, the act of sponsoring beauty pageants signals the acceptance of a number of ‘foreign’ but recognisably ‘developed,’ ‘advanced,’ or ‘modern’ ideas, including putting women on public display, which may contradict local sentiments.’11 From the most modest local competition to the ultimate global extravaganza under the watchful eye of global television, beauty pageants are engaged in ideological labour that under girds the presumptions of a global capitalist order.
More than anything else, Richard Wilk claims that the pageants make sense of everyday life in this global order by creating common categories of difference12. At the local level, contestants are often judged by community standards, which may include recognition of the ways that a contestant observes local mores. A young woman who cares for her elderly grandmother, maintains the family shrine, participates in harvest rituals, or observes local guidelines for courtship may be recognised for these behaviours since they symbolise local attitudes about community life and social obligations. At this level, a play exists between local and global standards, which is often commented upon by participants and spectators. But as the contestant moves to the next level of competition, local qualities decline in significance and other, more cosmopolitan standards, become more prominent. Wilk furthermore observes that within a given round of competition, a similar process of abstraction is often at work. For example, while conducting field work at the national competition in Belize he noted,’Contestants enter and are introduced wearing ‘ethnic’ costumes, often quite fanciful (sometimes from a group other than their own). But as the pageant goes on, ethnicity disappears and nationality asserts itself. First the contestants are symbolically shorn of ethnic identity in the swimsuit competition; ethnicity is metaphorically superseded by sexuality. Next they reappear transformed, as in a rite of passage, in cosmopolitan and expensive formal wear, to perform and then to answer questions on an explicitly nationalised theme.’13 Thus the country is subordinated to the city, the agrarian to the modern, the ethnic to the national and ultimately to the global.
Beauty pageants, according to Wilk, do not homogenise but rather they organise differences.’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.’ They then measure, quantify and evaluate these differences in a putatively objective manner. This process draws ’systemic connections between disparate parts of the world. These common frames bring previously separated groups into a new arena of competition, consisting of global structures that organise diversity and turn it into common difference.’14
Wilk’s analysis of the relationship between global and local symbolic orders could be applied to any number of contests that ultimately feed into a global media event, such as the Olympics or World Cup Soccer. Television’s role in the production of these events is not merely accidental. From its very earliest inception, television was designed to reach far-flung audiences with programs that would help to organise differences into a global hierarchy that would serve the purposes of American policy makers15. What is particularly fascinating about globally televised competitions is the way that these occasions often help to structure transnational differences as well as discipline local uses of the body. Games become sporting events, which ultimately become serious business in the global economy. As a team becomes fully integrated into the hierarchy of sporting competition, local game playing takes on a more standardised quality. Similarly, the hierarchy of global beauty competition transforms femininity into an abstract representation of sexuality, which in turn can be marketed transnationally, stripped of its local connections to pleasure, family, or social circumstance.16
Although local contests may still affirm community values, spectators each year become more aware of international standards. One can, therefore, observe a double movement in the logic of beauty contests that works both to produce a set of common differences and to help naturalise these standards at the most quotidian levels of personal and community life. Movement upward in the competition is dependent upon the internalisation of global values at the local level. Yet even if one were not to move upward, the activity of participating or spectating helps one understand the value of the common set of differences upon which the competitions are based. Furthermore, one’s place in the transnational order is reaffirmed by regular participation in this global/local ritual. One might apply Victor Turner’s wisdom to this situation by observing that values and norms are thereby aestheticised and imbued with emotion.
Another way of looking at this process is to note that, like a money economy that fetishises commodities, beauty contests attach abstract values to bodies, behaviours, and standards of femininity. Not only are contestants numerically graded at every stage of the competition, but it has been reported, for example, that organisers of the Miss Thailand World contest, which sends its winner to the global competition, developed a rather specific scoring formula that they believe reflects international standards for beauty competitions: Face (30 per cent), figure (20 per cent), legs (10 per cent), walking (10 per cent), wit (10 per cent), personality (10 per cent), and character (10 per cent). Thai judges use the standards in order to guarantee that the winner in Bangkok has the best shot at the global crown. Obviously, contestants and local communities adopt these standards. Often they criticise or challenge such abstractions. But the terms of their challenge must nevertheless take into account the powerful and pervasive set of standards on display each year via transnational television.
Thus, like the introduction of a local money economy, once a beauty contest is organised at the local or national level, it invariably is pressured to integrate with the global order. ‘Protest’ then seems confined to a handful of options: One’s community may discontinue the contest; it may continue to compete according to its own principles (ever condemned to the status of an’underperforming’ contestant); or it may seek to maintain community standards while also coordinating its competition with the global event in hopes of having its’difference’ recognised as valuable. The third option seems to be the path most commonly taken as national communities attempt to mediate the tensions between the global and the local. But despite all the popular discussion that commonly swirls about beauty competitions at all levels, most public deliberation is inevitably framed in relation to the standards on display at the global event. The global not only assigns abstract value to the local, it also structures local deliberation and/or protest.
Alliance against the Global Beauty Order
Since the introduction of economic-liberalisation policies and the arrival of satellite television in 1991, Indian consumers and television viewers have been inundated by increasingly lurid images of women performing for male spectators in films, television, and advertising. When the Miss World contest was held for the first time in India on November 23, 1996, many media critics and cultural analysts saw this event as yet another example of the subordination of women to the status of sex objects in the new economy of global consumerism.Promoted as a ‘tribute to Indian culture, ‘the global media event was set against the backdrop of reconstructed ruins of a 14th-century Hindu temple. 88 women from around the world who would compete for the coveted Miss World title wore long, transparent skirts around their swimsuits, in ‘deference to Indian mores.’17 Hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian film industry’s biggest box-office attraction, the ‘tribute’ was an elaborate three-hour extravaganza with hundreds of performers, dozens of elephants, and pervasive appropriations of traditional Indian music, apparel, and cultural iconography. With an estimated 20,000 people in attendance, the gala event furthermore proved its appeal among Asia’s elite. Filling the front-rows of the venue were Bangalore’s rich and famous, as well as movie stars, celebrities, politicians, and international personalities like the Sultan of Brunei who reportedly bought 200 tickets for his entourage at US$ 695 each18. Less fortunate spectators had to be content watching the event live on television along with an estimated global audience of two billion viewers.19
Meanwhile, outside the venue, thousands of protestors had assembled, comprising more than ‘a dozen Indian groups, including feminists, communists and Hindu politicians’ who ‘opposed the beauty pageant alleging it demeans women and corrupts Indian culture.’20 Although protests against beauty pageants are common in India, few have resulted in such heated confrontations, nor have they attracted the exceptional amount of media attention that the Miss World pageant garnered in 1994. Indeed,’the degree and the extent’ of ‘the outpouring of emotion’ in India was phenomenal. One can attribute many reasons for the extensive media attention toward and the intense protest against the Miss World pageant in India. Certainly one can ascribe it to the contentious debate over globalisation in India where the explosive growth of satellite television promises to deliver the latest fads and fashions of global consumer culture to the vast Indian middle class. One can also explain the passionate conflict in terms of the acute ambivalence of Indian nationalism toward the visible excesses of transnational capitalism in a traditionally austere society. Finally, one can explain it in relation to the fundamental instabilities engendered by a 50-year program of nation-building that has systematically marginalised local articulations of language, race, caste, class, gender, and identity.
On one level, the criticism of the ideology of global consumerism heralded by events like the Miss World pageant is tied to the simple fact that economic liberalisation has not delivered the widespread prosperity promised by government leaders. However, there are some who seek to find ‘deeper reasons’ for this animosity. According to an editorial in Asia Week, the reason is that India is a ‘predominantly Hindu nation colonised by the British for 150 years and ruled by Muslim conquerors for a millennium; Indians have an understandable mistrust of foreigners.’21 Such rationalisation about the ‘understandable’ mistrust among Indians for ‘foreigners’ is problematic, to say the least.
What is even more disturbing in the Asia Week editorial is the ideological equation of a legitimate protest against globalisation to the regressive politics of xenophobic nationalism. Particularly since this xenophobic brand of nationalism has been on the rise in India since the early 1990s, and has successfully inscribed anti-foreign sentiment in a progressive history of post-colonial nationalism. According to this view, Indian history begins with an ancient (native) Hindu civilisation followed by an (external) Islamic invasion, followed by British colonialism, and finally culminates in the triumph of post-colonial nationalism. This narrative of Indian history is insidious in its ideology because it seeks to legitimise an essentialist myth of a pre-colonial, pre-Islamic Hindu as the authentic native of the land, the only one with an undisputed claim to citizenship.
The anti-foreign sentiment–which circulates in media, academia, and the polity under the deceptive garb of authentic national history and cultural tradition–has been shrewdly manipulated and harnessed by the Hindu right-wing formation led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to propagate its political ideology of Hindutva — or Hindu essence. At the time of the Miss World contest, the BJP was manoeuvring to win the votes of conservatives among the Hindu electorate. In the short term, the BJP sought to fuel the anxieties engendered by the Miss World contest, but in the long run they were also building upon the nativist claims that lie at the core of their political ideology. For a long time, the BJP has promoted its version of cultural nationalism — based on the essentialist notion of Hindutva — as a substitute for the state-sponsored ideology of secularism in India.
The powerful rhetoric of Hindutva, when set against the hegemony of secular nationalism, is emotionally appealing to millions of conservative Hindus who perceive an inherent threat to their religious traditions due to the growing power of globalisation (which is seen to be synonymous with Westernisation). But more significantly, Hindutva derives its political legitimacy from small but very influential segments of the middle-class literati who have turned-albeit uneasily-toward the Hindu conservatives in order to rekindle their dwindling hopes of social transformation in the now-ideologically-depleted terrain of secular nationalism in India. Thus, in recent years, the ideology of Hindutva has attained a powerful ideological momentum which has the potential to appropriate other articulations of cultural criticism — based on gender, class, and locality — into its nationalist fold.
For instance, among the most contentious issues in the Miss World pageant that brought the Hindutva forces into the same fold with Marxist critics and the women’s movement was the swimsuit competition. Exposure of women’s thighs and ankles in the swimsuits was seen by many in the feminist movement as yet another example of the objectification of the female body for the male gaze. To the Marxists, it was an ideological manifestation of the increasing commodification in the international capitalist order. To the advocates of Hindutva, the swimsuit competition was an assault on traditional mores that was considered all the more atrocious given the fact that it was orchestrated by foreigners. The event was characterised as a violation of Indian tradition, which the advocates of Hindutva have been keen to portray as distinctly Hindu in character. Protest groups were successful at pressuring Miss World organisers to relocate part of the event to the Seychelles where contestants were jetted in to disrobe their legs for the required swimsuit competition. Criticisms of the swimsuit competition also were interpreted in relation to a tapestry of contemporary developments that fuelled anxieties about appropriate standards of female sexuality in India.
For the forces of Hindutva, the beauty contest’s apparent assault on traditional Hindu/Indian norms not only legitimised a passionate mass response, it justified the participation and even leadership of women. Moreover, the publicly expressed righteous indignation of the women’s movement helped to legitimise the protest, although that indignation had to be channelled and contained within the Hindu nationalist’s ideological framework. Regarding Indian nationalists’ attitudes toward gender, Kum Kum Sangari has written, ‘women must never name the social relation they are trying to preserve [nor must they] present it as a personal or material interest; they can only name the abstraction–family, honour, religion, nation–to which the social relation is either directly attached or which mediates it… In the naming and the not naming resides the distinction between villainous and heroic inciting women.’22
Hindu nationalism could achieve its own political objectives by appropriating women’s indignation about the objectification of female sexuality, and co-opting their protests through a tactical alliance against the Miss World pageant in Bangalore. Women’s groups protesting the Miss World pageant were not unaware of the trade-offs involved in this alliance with conservative nationalism advocated by the BJP and its supporters. As one of the feminist leaders, Brinda Karat, put it, ‘We consider this slogan of Indian culture a euphemism for reinforcing the fundamentalist viewpoint of woman as subordinate. In the name of Indian culture, what they really want to project is a stereotyped image of the meek and submissive Indian woman.’23Despite such cultural contradictions, women’s groups — rather than any of the political parties — took the lead in challenging the contest. For instance, Mahila Jagran Samiti (Forum for Awakening Women), petitioned the Karnataka State High Court to prevent the conduct of the Miss World pageant on grounds ranging from cultural sovereignty to national security to public health. The lower court judge who initially heard the case dismissed the petition, but the High Court sustained some of the objections during an appeal and put a number of restrictions on the staging of the event. Among the restrictions, Indian organisers Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) was prohibited from selling alcohol during the event and from holding the controversial ‘bikini show.’ It also had to submit to court oversight of its security arrangements for the event.24 Despite all these concessions, the economic stakes for ABCL were nevertheless high enough for the company to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. With that, all the legal hurdles were cleared, and the Supreme Court stayed the High Court decision, giving the organisers a green light for staging the contest in Bangalore.
The Supreme Court’s decision was a major blow for the protest movement against Miss World. When the recourse to legal action provided only limited success, a group of women’s activists led by Kina Narayana Sashikala at Mahila Jagaran Samiti announced that opponents would pursue alternative tactics. Among them, Sashikala was quoted as saying, ‘We will sneak into the stadium and burn ourselves. We already have the tickets.’25 This widely reported plan alarmed pageant organisers, since only a week earlier, a 24-year-old tailor in the south Indian city of Madurai had doused himself with petrol and set himself alight apparently in protest against the Miss World contest. Expressing concern at the threats of mass-suicide, Julia Morley, chairwoman of Miss World Ltd., said ‘I hope [the protestors] will act as women and come and talk to us instead of acting as rebels.’ Shifting attention to the contestants, Morley told journalists, ‘Let us have respect for them. There are 89 of them and they are young and beautiful. Let us take care of them.’26In four brief sentences Morley sought to universalise the contests’ standards of femininity by suggesting that women are nurturing, rational, communicative, and of course young and beautiful. But it is the power relation implied by the invitation Morley extended from behind the battlements of Bangalore -let them come to us-that highlights the very frustrations confronted by the opponents of Miss World. Allied with regressive political elements and struggling for a cosmopolitan standard of women’s rights, some women’s groups found themselves positioned as marginal fanatics challenging a rule-governed competition legitimised by a supposed global audience of two billion. In the eyes of many who were following the events in Bangalore, women’s groups had, in desperation, abandoned the high ground.
The predicament of the women’s groups protesting the Miss World pageant brings to attention the problematic politics and tactics of feminism in India when women’s activists are forced to align with conservative right-wing parties like the BJP to ensure the momentum of their movement. In this strategic alliance, what were initially cast as women’s issues became increasingly articulated to popular resentments against economic liberalisation and transnational corporate influences. Not unlike earlier protest movements in India, the struggle over the status of women was subsumed by a struggle over nationalist identity and cultural autonomy. Instead of giving voice to the feminist critique of Miss World, public deliberation and media coverage increasingly focused on the Hindutva movement’s characterisations of the struggle as an attempt to defend a distinctively Hindu/Indian concept of femininity against the profane values of invasion of ‘foreigners.’For the Hindutva activists, the sexually assertive female consumer became the symbolic condensation of what India had to fear most from the Miss World contest. Thus the BJP activists’ counterattack on westernisation of Indian/Hindu traditions on the one hand, and their rejections of the cultural values of assertive femininity were seen as the most prominent rationale for opposing the beauty contest. However, ironically, it was the assertive critique launched by feminist groups which brought the struggle to the forefront in the first place. The feminists could ‘name’ the offence to the dignity of Indian women but ultimately could not claim the struggle as their own.
On the other hand, international organisers of the Miss World contest seemed to take the challenge in stride. Despite the impassioned demonstrations in the streets of Bangalore, the Miss World contest now finds itself doubly legitimised in countries like India through the visible success of the global media event and the apparent exhaustion of the protest movement against it. On the other hand, the failure of the protest is characterised as being symptomatic of a larger problem of feminism.
In the final analysis, neither global media events like Miss World nor the protest movements against such beauty pageants seem to be adequate sites for challenging the worldwide hegemony of patriarchal traditions, and/or capitalist social relations. Yet it would be a folly to construe all media events within capitalism and patriarchy as irredeemably co-optative or to assume that protest against their globalisation is a ‘failure.’ If a powerful convergence of global, national, and local forces at the Miss World contest seemed to deform the political organising efforts of progressive feminist groups protesting the media event, then so too can the disseminative power of satellite television provide openings for challenging the traditional norms and social relations in Indian society.As the passionate debates over the 1996 Miss World contest suggest, the re-definition of femininity in India is now very much an ideological necessity, thus making the critical re-examination of gender relations a cultural imperative of everyday life. Protests against such events may prove futile for feminist groups in part because the events so effectively interpellate their contestants and spectators, many of whom aspire to transcend repressive gender conventions. But perhaps more importantly, protests against beauty contests may prove counterproductive because the criticisms levelled at the events so often expand into a broad-based assault on consumer culture and the fashion industry. While indeed one must be critical of the profit-oriented ambitions of the businesses that sponsor beauty pageants, one must remember that many of them achieve their successes in countries like India by being pioneering institutions of the modernising era to address the fantasies and aspirations of Indian women. In such a context, the very act of transgressing the dichotomy of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ notions of feminine desire has subversive implications that need to be explored with greater care.
(Professor Shanti Kumar is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Unimaginable Communities: Television and the Politics of Nationalism in Postcolonial India (forthcoming) and the co-editor of Planet TV: A Global Television Reader)
South Asian Journal