Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Does one person make a difference?

So I recently read about the newest Miss England at Bitch Blogs and the writer, Mandy Van Deven, asked if the inclusion of a black woman who is openly athletic and ambitious as the number one beauty queen in her country could be seen as feminism at work. My first reaction was a very tentative, "maybe?"

The problem is, women can be included in something without that something (whether it be politics or community leadership or motherhood or beauty pageants) necessarily taking on anything (values, practices, etc.) remotely feminist (much less womanist). We see this all the time, don't we? Women's options for participation in life have been expanded, but only if we play by the rules.

Looking at Rachel Christie's pictures and reading about her, it reminded me of a case I had heard of before: Vanessa Williams.

And the question that came to my mind was: does the inclusion of these Black women really challenge whiteness? Or is it simply more of the aforementioned "play by the rules and we'll let you have this" mentality?

Lo and behold, a mere week later I was assigned a reading for this women's political history class precisely about the Vanessa Williams case. Reading through Sarah Banet-Weiser's essay, I got my answer: a resounding "No".

Pageants have a set of rules they play by, it's called "idealized white womanhood" and while women of color can be included now, it's only by showing white America that "we're just like you".

Banet-Weiser talked about the way specifically Black women (though I would argue this applies to all women of color because they are so severely underrepresented in pageant winners or even contestants) must "pass" while also "eroticizing their difference". In other words, they have to make us (the audience, the, white, audience) want them, while also feeling they could be one of "us". They have to fit a mold and prove to us that they can represent the same "values" as their white pageant sisters.

This played out in a huge way with Vanessa Williams' fall from grace because she broke the rules of proper "American" (read: white) womanhood. She was, in her Penthouse pictures, too sexual and sexually deviant across boundaries of both "appropriate" race and sexuality.

Most importantly, there have been no institutional changes to the pageant since Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win the Miss America title. More Black women (and one Asian American woman) have followed in those footsteps, but there is still a very strict formula one must follow to be a beauty queen. Look at the winners before and since, there is definitely a "look" that is deemed "correct". And the behavioral components Banet-Weiser discusses certainly seem to still be strongly in place.

So to me, is Rachel Christie's victory "feminism at work"?

No. Because I have no reason to believe her win will challenge the rules of the pageant, and those rules are markedly anti-womanist/feminist.

Certainly her win is an achievement for a talented and ambitious young Black woman in the UK, and perhaps that's a good thing in of itself (though I had to put that "perhaps" in because I'm unsure if indoctrinating women of color into the cult of white womanhood is really a good thing for anyone). But that doesn't make it feminist.