The Miss Universe pageant has been a pillar of pop culture in the United States for decades—whether it be the glamorous outfits, a sense of nationalism, or Steve Harvey iconically crowning the wrong winner on live television in 2015—the international beauty competition has kept millions of viewers captivated for decades. Initially founded by Catalina Swimwear in 1952 as a marketing stunt after a Miss America winner refused to model their swimwear, the Miss Universe pageant has grown from an untelevised beauty pageant of thirty women to an international broadcast featuring eighty women from across the globe. Despite the Miss Universe pageant’s efforts to make the event more than a “beauty” pageant and appeal to modern feminism—especially with the recent assumption of leadership by transgender activist Anne Jakkaphong Jarajutatip—many still protest the pageant’s perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards and its objectification of women.
While these concerns are valid and the whole concept of a beauty pageant is problematic, the Miss Universe pageant has historically functioned as a mechanism for women in developing states to attain a political platform and a voice on the world stage. Therefore, even as feminist calls for the end of the Miss Universe pageant’s century-long perpetuation of female objectification are justifiably growing in support, one must also consider the platform that Miss Universe provides for women in developing states to interfere in politics and challenge these patriarchal institutions when debating the pageant’s place in the modern world.
Beauty pageants are a patriarchal enterprise. The notion of ranking women based on attractiveness, even with the added modern categories of personality and intelligence, is dehumanizing. The pageant industry has drawn criticism over the years for its perpetuation of unrealistic body images and for crowning tall, thin, young, primarily white women as the pinnacle of the “universe’s” beauty standards. The portion of the judging where contestants model swimwear has long been a point of controversy, with arguments against ranging from discussions of modesty to sexual objectification to harmful ideals of body image. A severe lack of body diversity has remained a stagnant staple of the show throughout its decades-long run. In the context of fourth-wave feminism, which emphasizes female empowerment and the fight against sexual harassment and female objectification, the concept of a beauty pageant feels like a backtracking relic of the past.
However, it is near impossible to disentangle an international pageant—where each woman bears the sash of a country—from the global political stage. The Miss Universe pageant presents a precedential path for women to get involved in international affairs, especially in countries where women are erased from political spheres. Although the United States holds the most Miss Universe wins at 9, Venezuela falls close behind at 7, followed by Puerto Rico and the Philippines at 5 and 4 wins respectively. The crown is multifaceted, as are the women on the screen. The central issue here is whether the ends justify the means in the world of pageantry. The cycle of misogyny paradoxically gets closer to ending every time a woman finds a platform big enough to call out patriarchal institutions and help mend the pain she intuitively understands.
Several winners of the Miss Universe pageant have channeled their fame into careers in charity work, social activism, and politics. Catriona Gray, Miss Universe 2018 from the Philippines, has been a vocal activist for women, LGBTQ+, and indigenous people’s rights and has spoken out for and against government policies in the Philippines. In 2020, Gray publicly spoke out against the military “red-tagging” women’s rights groups in the country as communist affiliates after a general indirectly threatened her, insinuating that she could lose her life if she continued to associate with progressive social groups. The incident drew international media attention and stirred unrest in the country about the government’s treatment of women.
According to the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index, the gender gap in the representation of men and women serving in the Filipino government is 76.8 percent. With such low female representation in government, leadership for feminist movements often must come from the people to place pressure on opposing lawmakers and executives. Despite having previously had a female president, the Philippines remains rife with institutionalized misogyny. Many Filipina women claim this misogyny was exacerbated by former President Duterte and his blatantly sexist views on the role of women in government. Traditional gender roles permeate the country, which has led 31 percent of women to report an inability to work due to their time-consuming familial duties. To combat these issues without level financial or social power, many women in the Philippines have looked up to their most recent Miss Universe victor, Catriona Gray, for she is one of the most powerful politically active women independent of the state government with the resources and influence to rally change.
Catriona Gray is not the only Miss Universe to enter the realm of politics and activism following her victory. Gabriela Isler of Venezuela, crowned Miss Universe in 2013, followed her win with advocacy in international philanthropy, HIV/AIDS research, women’s rights, human trafficking, and poor maternal mortality rates in Venezuela (the GII lists the country’s gender gap in government at 87.4 percent). Mpule Kwelagobe of Botswana, crowned Miss Universe in 1999, has also used her platform for advocacy and investment in international politics. She has worked over the past two decades in the fight for better healthcare for HIV/AIDS patients in Africa as well as women’s access to education, having directly addressed the United Nations on these issues more than once.
In a world where women have historically and almost universally been valued for their appearance, it is only logical that one of the major global platforms exclusively reserved for women is a beauty competition while tangible government jobs have been largely reserved for men. However, a platform, regardless of its means of acquisition, still carries money, power, autonomy, and a voice. The mainstream media often portrays beauty contestants as shallow and unthinking—jokes to be capitalized on SNL or looped on TikTok—without reflecting on how these stereotypes are themselves entrenched within patriarchal gender norms. In reality, these women are victims of the system desperately trying to fight their way out. They are playing the man’s game because there is a light at the end of a dark tunnel that they can dig out for the rest of the women in their community.
The picture of the Miss Universe pageant is a nuanced portrait of the global disparities of the 21st century feminist movements. As women in progressive states begin to finally dismantle long-standing sexist institutions, there are other women around the world who continue to struggle against their governments for baseline human rights. Rather than judge these women, we must work to acquire a deeper understanding of their circumstances and the perpetrators of the unjust system in which they exist, and together we may construct an inclusive feminist movement that uplifts these marginalized voices and promptly eliminates patriarchal institutions like the Miss Universe pageant.