Apart from being an American of Indian origin, brown etc., Nina Davuluri is also a textbook nerd.
A lot has been written about the massive racist onslaught against Miss America, 2013- Nina Davuluri. The abuse and hatred that spewed forth following her crowning was unprecedented. The online media especially rose up in arms, supporting Davuluri and condemning the racism. I bet most of you have already read these articles. I just got down to writing this, (vacation, whee!) a while after the hype has died down.
Many of these counters seem to show support for Davuluri while mentioning how the a first generation Indian American Miss America pageant is representative of the cultural melting pot, that is the United States, and how we should consider all colours and ethnicities beautiful. I am uncomfortable with this sort of support, and here’s why.
As I have mentioned in my post on the Dove real beauty campaign, even when we appreciate diverse and inclusive beauty, we fall into the trap of creating beauty standards. This need to define beauty as a product or a service almost, is the problem. Miss America and the thousands of other pageants in the world are showroom for that product.
The idea of women parading in various kinds of clothing, exhibiting etiquette, posture, grooming and other such autocratic terms seems a bit like a televised cattle show to me. Something like when farmers go to the cattle market, and examine physical attributes and pedigree to get the best return on their investment. I don’t want to even compare it with dog and horse shows and the like, because I’m personally opposed to exhibiting animals, but that’s for another post. The show format to me, demeans the contestants and the audience simultaneously. The market rules rule, so we get what we want. Check out this brilliant quote by Tina Fey:
“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.”
When Davuluri’s defenders wax eloquent on the inclusive representative value of her win, they are trying to approve another set of beauty standards which can be included in what is considered beautiful, and what women are now allowed to aspire to. She has been described as ‘chocolate-skinned’. Ah, the edible nature of beauty.
I am against the idea of there being competition to tangibly assess a personal, subjective and abstract concept such as beauty, and granting a person vetted by this arbitrary beauty archetype to have even nominal representative value. The pageant is supposed to be a path to winning the $50000 scholarship. It has a talent round. Davuluri performed a pretty great Bollywood dance routine. It’s great to celebrate talent, and to be rewarded for it. There are competitions for it, even if they are accused of being farcical. Talent shows do exist.
Talent need not be joined together with beauty standards, like a consolation addendum. Contestants are made to answer questions about their lives, social and world issues. Have you HEARD some of the winning answers? It’s absurd to call Miss America a scholarship.
With all these reservations against the Miss America pageant, I am forced to confront a rather interesting dichotomy. On one hand, the Miss America pageant has influenced typical beauty standards, while not giving great importance to academic achievement. I don’t approve of stereotypes. However, I have to agree with the stereotype that somehow pageant winners are not seen as the smartest people out there, and the general nerd and geek community does not enter pageants in large numbers. We cannot deny that there has been an established mutual exclusivity between the beauties and the geeks, which has added substance to the critique of the representative value of these pageants.
Miss America 2013 is surprising. Davuluri has a degree in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science and is going to medical school. Pop culture-wise, she is also a proud member of the Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms. Pretty much checks the boxes of being a textbook nerd. The first runner-up Crystal Lee, is a Stanford alumnus, and is working on transportation of vaccines at a startup. Kudos to them for being such brilliant women.
Is this a one-off accident or the start of a trend, of diverse intellectual profiles and backgrounds in the beauty industry? Are the geeks proud of now having a Miss America, as a member of the community? Are the beauty queens wearing their SAT scores on their sleeves? Is smart the new Black?
It would be interesting to find out. Regardless, I’m going to continue finding pageants problematic.