Does 'Miss Universe' pageant objectify women?

30 Aug 2023 08:14am
Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel (C) celebrates after winning the 71st Miss Universe competition at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 14, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)
Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel (C) celebrates after winning the 71st Miss Universe competition at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 14, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

I have always considered pageants like Miss Universe (MU) as a platform that objectifies women. Contestants are ‘displayed’ as objects, apparently being judged on their physical appearance, which reinforces stereotypical standards of beauty, although to some extent consideration is supposedly given to their intellect.

Although the MU organisation represents that the platform provides a “safe space for women to share their stories and drive impact personally, professionally, and philanthropically”, what happens in the background for these women to get there, gets no public scrutiny until recently, when the Indonesia scenario surfaced.

Of course, the intent of such pageants may be, to choose an ‘iconic’ woman annually, to serve as an inspirational leader and role model to their communities and fans around the world. Yet, pitting women against one another, involves a ‘toxic’ degree of physical beauty, with the women being scrutinised from a set of ‘patriarchal lens’.

The brand of the MU had grown over the years, creating a ‘dream’ and aspiration for many women, world-over. From economically developed countries to smaller nations, these women yearn to be that ‘iconic-figure’, encouraged to be their country’s representatives by supposedly showcasing their identity and intellect, to stand-out from the rest.

According to MU Organisation, this annual icon should showcase confidence, be able to articulate her drive, be authentic and credible, exhibit grace and understand the values of the MU brand and the responsibilities of the title.

These seem to reflect that such pageant is not just about superficial, physical aspects of a woman. Yet, regardless of what pageant organisers may say, physical beauty is a prime-criteria for judges, which may serve to ‘shake’ a person’s confidence if she dreams to represent her country as the ‘iconic’ woman.

If indeed the physical and superficial aspects of a woman are not key criteria, the 'swimsuit' round, for example, has no reason to be such a ‘highlight’, where contestants are required to prance on stage in skimpy two-piece swimwear, being paraded and avidly watched by millions of viewers. This to me, is objectifying.

All these bring us to the subject matter at hand – the allegation of sexual harassment in one of the MU Organisation franchises in Indonesia. In my opinion, given the fact that physical appearance plays a key role in choosing the winner of MU, plus the fact that a number of aspects of the competition itself end up objectifying the contestants, whether intended or otherwise, it would not be surprising if the Indonesian incident were not an isolated case.

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When physical beauty becomes a key factor, together with a group of women who desperately aspire to be the ‘iconic’ annual figure, the stage is set for possible abuse and sexual harassment.

From a ‘perception’ perspective, the fact that the MU Organisation had immediately severed ties with its Indonesian franchisee, who also holds the license for MU Malaysia, would not necessarily make this issue disappear for the MU Organisation.

Sexual harassment allegations are always complex. Every such case will have its own set of lessons on how an organisation can better handle and communicate around such reputation-threatening situations.

Going public about the immediate severance of relationship without looking into the matter carefully, may backfire for the MU Organisation. The fact that MU Organisation issued a statement confirming that the franchisee “had not lived up to their brand standards, ethics and expectations” may result in retaliation by the franchisee.

Taking such action that impacts livelihood and business by letting reports of sexual misconduct go unchecked, may result in the issue escalating into a full-blown crisis.

Another aspect that needed to be considered is, if indeed sexual harassment did take place, what did the MU Organisation know, and when did they know it?

These may give rise to questions on MU Organisation’s legitimacy – in that the criteria of judging itself, may be seen to create an overarching culture where appalling acts of sexual predation apparently could take place over a long period of time.

This may also give rise to potential questions about the MU Organisation dragging their feet, ignoring or even minimising ‘signals’ or warnings that are embedded in the criteria.

Organisations must know, as a general principle that even with passage of time, sexual misconducts will eventually come to the surface. ‘Putting a lid’ on such matters or simply severing ties, will not ‘cut it’. Organisations must act decisively and appropriately and understand the whole scenario, to be able to pre-empt and manage issues arising, immediately and effectively.

MU Organisation must be seen to take such allegations extremely seriously. If the franchisee perpetrator is ‘guilty’, they need to be held accountable and MU Organisation should be seen as playing an important role in ensuring such accountability, as the franchisor.

The fact that the Organisation had severed ties with the franchisee, without apparently showing any interest in ‘getting to the bottom of it’ may be perceived as ‘washing their hands’ of this ‘stain’.

As a general rule in such cases also, there should never be emphasis on ‘investigating where the leak of such allegations’ came from. This may be perceived as a ‘witch hunt’ and potentially create perception of a cover-up. What is important to protect the organisation’s brand is that the organisation had taken the appropriate, effective and timely action when such allegations arise – this is what the public wants to know.

Additionally, protecting the victim’s identity is paramount. Even in cases where the accuser has made a public appearance, the MU Organiser should avoid sharing any information about the accuser and continue to protect the accuser’s privacy.

Finally, with the potential of this allegation becoming a full-blown criminal or civil case, the MU criteria itself should be able to stand up to scrutiny. A key question that arises may be, has the MU Organisation created a potential platform where sexual misconduct can take place and even thrive? This is another aspect that the communication and legal teams need to look into in managing the crisis at hand.

In short, for sexual harassment cases, the reputational stakes are high. If unmanaged, they will have a massive impact on an organisation’s brand reputation and survival.

In the case of MU, bearing in mind the fact that such pageants may be seen as a ‘breeding ground’ for the objectification of women, perhaps the MU and other pageantry organisations should look into the focus of their criteria for winners.

Instead of superficial and physical considerations being perceived as key factors, as normally portrayed in the MU finals, the MU Organisation should ensure that the whole pageant places emphasis on choosing and developing an ‘iconic-figure’ who really represents a woman of grace, intellect, positive values, authenticity and above all, one who indeed can represent the woman of the future, cutting across nations, culture, race and religion.

Prof Mohd Said Bani C.M. Din is the Managing Director of BzBee Consult and Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Malaysia President.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.