Pretty weapons of war

by Page Forrest

Junior Editor

When one thinks of political tools in war, several options will immediately come to mind: nuclear bombs, drones, propaganda, espionage. Rarely, however, does one think of beauty pageant contestants as a form of political one-upmanship. Dr. Holly Grout plans to change that.

Grout is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Her primary areas of interest are the history of modern France, history of women and gender, cultural and intellectual history of modern Europe, history of the body, history of consumption and consumer culture, and history of beauty and fashion. She spoke at Sewanee on October 30 in Gailor Hall, presenting on “The Politics of Pulchritude: Miss Universe 1928.” The lecture was based on Grout’s upcoming book The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic, which will be published in the spring of 2015. The book studies femininity in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France through examination of beauty norms at the time. Grout explained how along with developments in the science of beauty, “Beauty came to be envisioned as a form of woman’s work. Since beauty was positioned as work rather than something natural, femininity itself was a social performance.”

The height of feminine social performance came in the 1920s, when a Texan entrepreneur organized the Miss Universe Pageant in Galveston. The pageant was the culmination of the system building up both in America and France, with America’s first pageants taking place on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Grout’s focus was on the third annual Miss Universe Pageant, which took place in 1928. 42 women participated, with 32 from the United States, and 10 foreign contestants from various European countries. Contestants were required to meet standards of beauty, weight, height, personality, and race before entering. That year, 16 year old Raymonde Allain from France came in second, and 22 year old Ella van Hueson from Chicago was crowned Miss Universe. However, as Grout explained, the contestants were “more than pretty girls vying for a title, but soldiers in a transnational war.”

The pageant was seen as a determining factor of what constitutes real beauty. With France and the United States competing head to head as cultural torchbearers on issues such as the World’s Fairs, it made sense that those two countries would also vie for setting the global standard for beauty. Was beauty the demure, chic, soft-spirited French woman? Or was it the bold, athletic, charming American? Each contestant in the finale embodied the ideal of her country. Van Hueson and Allain served both as national symbols and international icons after the pageant. Grout demonstrated the politicization of the pageant as she explained how in early rounds, the emphasis was on contestants’ personality and history. However, once a victor was announced, all focus was given to the title. “It became about the brand, not the person,” Grout went on to say. The pageant was not only international cultural wars, but also intranational conflicts. “These girls were seen as safe, publicized alternatives to the flapper, and her French equivalent, the garçonne, who many saw as cultural deviants.”

Grout herself was never a pageant girl. However, she was always interested in the ways beauty and feminist ideals interacted. In an interview after the lecture, she wondered “Are there ways we can see beauty as an empowering idea rather than something that limit us? We see beauty as more pluralistic now, the definition is widening. And because of this, it’s more productive to be able to think of it as not just a label.” Even though standards of beauty are shifting, pageants still hold a powerful political impact. Antiquated cultural norms are being broken down every year, especially in racial-based ideas of beauty. Just this year, Nina Davuluri was the first Indian Americanto be crowned Miss America. Femininity is still a powerful tool, but it doesn’t have to be limited to vying for global superiority in beauty standards. Instead, it can be used to help change measures of attractiveness and create a less exclusive ideal of what it means to be pretty.