Does beauty pageant activism mean anything?

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Several contestants in this year's Miss Universe competition combined activism and pageantry in stunning fashion. Miss Myanmar, Ma Thuzar Wint Lwin, walked the runway in an intricate woven and beaded costume representing the Chin people of the nation's northwestern region. Then, she unfurled a scroll reading, "Pray for Myanmar," a reference to the military's violent crackdown on the enormous protests against its February coup.

She wasn't the only contestant to use fashion as a conduit for social justice. Miss Singapore, Bernadette Belle Ong, strutted the runway in a red and white cape representing her nation's flag, with the message "Stop Asian Hate" hand-painted on the back. And Miss Uruguay, Lola de los Santos Bicco, wore a rainbow skirt to protest LGBTQ+ discrimination. "What is this platform for if I can't use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence!" Ong wrote on Instagram.

Competitions like Miss Universe and Miss America used to be synonymous with superficiality — an excuse for men, mostly, to judge women largely on their looks. That's shifted in recent years, as the beauty pageant industrial complex has sashayed towards inclusivity. Miss America, for example, abolished its infamous swimsuit category in 2018, explicitly shifting focus away from contestants' bodies.

"At the end of the day, Miss Universe is someone dynamic, confident, ambitious and strong — and that hasn’t changed since its inception," Paula Shugart, who's been President of the Miss Universe Organization since 2001, told Mic. One thing that has changed? "In recent years, we have used the televised show to bring to light issues our contestants care deeply about," she said.

It's striking that Miss Universe explicitly encourages contestants to be activists, when another international competition, the Olympic Games, says it'll punish athletes who protest. Even small stands against injustice, like raising a fist or taking a knee, will get them sanctioned. Compare that to what Shugart told Yahoo Life: "We will always support a woman for using her voice," she said. "We tell every young woman, you have a voice. Use your voice and stand for something."

Miss Universe didn't get "woke" in a vacuum, however. For one thing, entertainers of all stripes have been compelled to become more outspoken in the last few years, due to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. "This last year’s focus on social justice was an extremely important reckoning for the world, and we’re proud the Miss Universe Organization was already having these important conversations," Shugart told Mic, pointing to the fact that its trifecta of 2019 titleholders — Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA — were all Black women for the first time in its history.

There's also the inconvenient fact that the Miss Universe Organization was co-owned by Donald Trump for nearly two decades, until he was forced to sell in 2015 amid backlash for calling Mexican immigrants "drug dealers" and "rapists." When Trump bought the pageants in 1996, he complained to Howard Stern that Miss Universe was a "sick puppy" and the women weren't as hot as they used to be. "They had a person that was extremely proud that a number of the women had become doctors," Trump said. "And I wasn’t interested."

In 2005, again talking to Stern, Trump boasted about waltzing into pageant changing rooms to ogle the women in a state of undress. When he was running for president, a number of Miss Teen USA contestants said they remembered him doing just that. In 2010, Trump bragged to David Letterman that when he bought Miss USA, "I made the heels higher and the bathing suits smaller."

So, yeah, the notion that these beauty pageants have always empowered women is a total fantasy. Heck, the Miss USA competition (which spun-off into Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe) was started by a swimwear company, Catalina, that was mad that the 1950 winner of Miss America, Yolande Betbeze, refused to tour the country wearing its bathing suits. "I’m an opera singer, not a pinup," Betbeze told them. So Catalina launched its own, less-demure pageant.

Miss America, which eschews the pageant moniker and bills itself as a "scholarship program," isn't sinless either. Its former CEO Sam Haskell was forced to resign in late 2017 when leaked emails revealed he'd denigrated past winners as "huge" and "gross." They scrapped the swimsuits the very next year. As Lauren Collins put it in a 2020 New Yorker article on the evolution of the Miss America pageant, "Progressivism has its limits in a regressive institution."

Still, in the years after Trump was booted, Miss Universe has become more outwardly progressive. Miss Spain, Angela Ponce, became the pageant's first transgender contestant in 2018. And the 2019 Miss Myanmar, Swe Zin Htet, was the first openly gay woman to compete. These nods towards inclusion do feel rather reactive and cosmetic, however, and it's easy to trace that distrust to the decades that pageants spent telling women they needed to be Barbies.

Shugart told Mic that changes, like having an all-female judging panel and making public speaking the main focus of the televised competition, indicates Miss Universe has "evolved with the times." With the 2021 edition as a prototype, it is admittedly enticing to ponder the future of these institutions. Regardless of the sexist history of pageants, women have openly embraced them as a platform to spread awareness about issues they care about. In the end, that's something to celebrate.