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The world of pageantry has been synonymous with beauty, glamour and a platform for young women to kick-start their careers in media and use their voice for important causes. Every year, three title winners are announced by Femina Miss India, namely, Miss India-Universe, Miss India-World and Miss India-Asia Pacific with Miss Universe being the most prestigious. Many big names such as Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta and others, who have succeeded in the film industry, all started their careers with an entry into the Miss India pageantry. Currently, joining the list of names is Manushi Chillar, who brought the Miss World crown home, after 17 long years making India proud. India’s obsession with beauty pageants and the idolisation of its winners have seen a burgeoning cosmetic and beauty markets in the country. Many have expressed their opinion on the pageantry being a drawback to the feminist movement. The idea of judging young women on their body and personality and the constant reminder for women to alter her body in order to fit the ‘ideal’ type of woman is everything feminism does not stand for. Despite the opposition, the pageantry still stands tall with thousands of women signing up and following every detail of the competition. So, in an era where feminism is gaining a lot of momentum, can pageantry and feminism run parallel to each other?

The article based upon the author’s thorough and intensive participant observation at the 2003 Miss India pageant’s month-long training programme for contestants. The paper discusses how the pageant has been instrumental in constructing a new kind of woman, in the post-liberalisation sphere. Drawing similarities between Foucault’s notion of the panopticon, and postcolonial feminism in the construction of gendered identities of Miss India contestants. The article puts forward the contestants’ negotiating the strict training to being ultimately crowned ‘Miss India’ and represent what it means to be ‘Indian’ at a global stage.

Runkle’s intensive participant observation lets the readers know about the process or the steps required to be followed by 23 potential ‘Miss India’ contestants under the constant guidance from leaders of the Indian fashion, film and beauty industries. The pageant is owned by Femina Magazine, who prints the entry form for ‘Miss India’ every year in August or September in both its pages and in the pages of its owner, the Times of India. The contestants are put through various grooming sessions throughout the 30-day training seminar in Mumbai prior to the event itself. Those sessions include a fashion designer, dermatologist, dietician, two hair stylists, a makeup artist, a self-styled ‘grooming expert’, a personal trainer, a cosmetic dental surgeon, a spiritual guide, a diction coach, and a photographer, coaching the contestants in their respective fields for sculpting them into the ideal of what Miss World should be. Special importance is given to confidence exuded by the contestants. The thin line between confidence and over-confidence is well established at the pageant and is considered the most difficult part of the training. The contestants are monitored every day during their month-long stay by the experts on how they should behave, even with the experts themselves.  When not under the eyes of the experts, chaperones are constantly invigilating their diet, conversations with their family, overall, making sure that the contestants are following the regimen assigned to them. Interestingly, Runkle has drawn similarities between the constant monitoring of the contestants at Miss India pageant and Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, well-known social theorist and a literary critic’s notion of the panopticon, which explores the relationship between systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation.  The pageant is the source of social control and the contestants being in the controlled situation.

While a feminist theory largely examines and re-examines female roles, Runkle, throughout the article critically analyses how women embody, as well as transgress such roles. The understanding of ‘real world feminism’ is essential, especially in the post-colonial and post-liberalisation sphere. For instance, a rural woman fighting against her daughter’s child marriage and an urban woman fighting for her promotion that she deserves as opposed to a man who does not. In both cases, though the shackles of oppression are different, it is still a fight for equal rights in all its sense. The contestants are constantly altering their physical appearance as well as their personality through the training programme. The ultimate winner may get the crown, accolades of praise and a bright future. The other contestants are benefited as well. The training programme gives them the opportunity to create a social network that allows them to enter into numerous fields in media. The social stratification of India is such that building such a network and social mobility is highly beneficial. The pageant has been an agency for social mobility that the contestants otherwise would not have had. It infuses inner confidence within the contestants and prepares or launches them into life, as told by the then Femina editor, Sathya Saran.                     

Another interesting aspect of the pageant that Runkle emphasises on is the disjuncture between being Miss India and the reality of being a Miss India contestant through six yards of cloth wrapped around the body called ‘sari’. In contrast to the idolisation of a woman in a sari being the most ‘Indian’ version of herself, a version that cannot be construed given the diversity of India, the Miss India contestants struggled to drape a sari and walk the ramp in it. The contestants, according to Runkle’s observation, were individual young women of a postcolonial and post-liberalisation era, who were uncomfortable with the sari and saw it as a relic of an old-fashioned India they were not a part of. The representation of India at a global stage through the ‘Miss World’, ‘Miss Universe’ pageant insisted on being everyone’s idea of India and everything that it stands for, even being a repository of stereotypes to some degree. This showed the pageant’s adherence towards the international idea or conceptions of an ‘Indian woman’ rather than the present idea of an ‘Indian woman’ by Indian women.

Whilst, giving an unrealistic notion of an ideal type of women and celebrating women solely for their beauty and physical trait, now included, talent, grace, poise and intelligence within their judging criteria is a hurdle in the fight for gender equality. The question of pageantry and feminism running parallel to each other, as much as I believe in the freedom of choice of women, still leaves me with a bewildered truth.       

Image Credit: Missosology

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Written By Stuti Pradhan


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