Since the Judgement of Paris, women have subjected themselves to external valuation versus not only other women but also an abstract ideal of beauty, and the 16 essays in this volume of Greenhaven’s At Issue series provide perspective into the most codified and formalized of those aesthetic valuations, that of beauty pageants. Using familiar names like Jon Benet Ramsey and Vanessa Williams, along with many fictional cultural touchstones such as Little Miss Sunshine and Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the authors reinforce and challenge our common perceptions about pageants and their contestants. First-person accounts from academics and media figures with pageant backgrounds are particularly interesting in contextualizing pageants in a post-feminist world.
The volume opens with a discussion of the waning interest in pageants, citing the failure of the Miss America pageant to secure broadcast network coverage as a sign that viewers, in the age of reality-television, preferred more organic tests of talent in their entertainments. While the most prestigious pageants remain limited to single, childless women of relative youth, much of the journalism collected here stresses that many pageants have less stringent guidelines for participation. This volume details the existence of events for plus-size women, those with limited mobility, prison populations and landmine victims.
The book will provide a handy resource for recurring research topics, whether the indictment of unrealistic beauty standards or the documentation of the 1968 Miss America protests in Atlantic City that provided a bellwether for second-wave feminism. It also provides historical background about the Miss America pageant, including its recent move from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and the inclusion of reality-television elements. Overall, the tone is balanced. For every essay that argues that pageants are tantamount to pedophilic ideation and child abuse, there is another that counters that pageants offer women unique opportunities to showcase their culture and develop self-confidence. The absence of illustration and minimal layout will likely grant the book greater longevity on the shelf.
Authors range from high-profile feminist Katha Pollitt to Hammasa Kohistali, who was chosen as the first Muslim Miss England in 2005. A summary precedes each chapter, as does each author’s credentials and information about the article’s original context. At least two of the articles appeared first online (on Slate and The Huffington Post), signaling an interesting shift in thinking about source as container rather than content. The work includes an interesting list of related organizations, including those concerned with welfare of child performers, as well as the contact information for both mainstream and alternative pageant headquarters. There is a robust bibliography of books and periodicals, and an index that includes names of pageant winners, coordinators and judges mentioned throughout. Recommended for school libraries.