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Mary Kenny

Feminism underlines freedom of choice, so if women choose to enter beauty contests, then what of it?

Mary Kenny


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Game changer: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Miss World winner Jennifer Hosten, with Suki Waterhouse and Clara Rosager in Misbehaviour

Game changer: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Miss World winner Jennifer Hosten, with Suki Waterhouse and Clara Rosager in Misbehaviour

Game changer: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Miss World winner Jennifer Hosten, with Suki Waterhouse and Clara Rosager in Misbehaviour

Every time the Rose of Tralee festival comes around, the same debate breaks out: isn't it humiliating and outdated for women to be lined up in any kind of a beauty pageant? Even if the 'Rose' is also judged on her personality, accomplishments and connections with Ireland? Isn't it time it was brought to an end?

The same principle is at the heart of Keira Knightley's new movie about the Miss World contest in 1970, when Women's Liberation stormed the event, threw flour-bombs at the celebrity presenter Bob Hope and got worldwide headlines for an imaginative stunt. From that moment on, Miss World was described as a cattle-market, objectifying women, judging females on their appearance, and defining them by their 'vital statistics' (measurement of boobs, waist and hips).

The new film of the 1970 event, Misbehaviour, sure brings home just how humiliating and demeaning parts of this ritual could be. There's a ghastly moment when the TV interviewer (in real life it was the cordial and harmless Michael Aspel who did MC for 11 years) asks the contestants to show their front assets - and then to turn around and display their derrieres for the audience's gaze. That really is a shocking, cattle-market camera shot.

But the story also looks at another aspect of the debate, which arises with the annual Tralee Rose as well. For some women, an international beauty contest could be an opportunity, or even a liberation. For the black South African candidate, it was a chance to escape from lifelong servitude in a shoe factory - and maybe the very fact that she had to be included contributed to changing attitudes towards Apartheid.

There's a telling exchange between Sally Alexander - Keira Knightley's character - and Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), when a conflict between the contestant and the feminist emerges. "It's not you we're angry with," protests Sally, 'Women's Libber' and university student. "I look forward to having your choices in life," replies the Caribbean beauty queen with icy logic.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

And since feminism underlines freedom of choice, then if some women freely choose to enter beauty contests, what of it? If some women have no problem with being objectified sexually, why should other women forbid them?

It's very easy to be patronising about the past - how stupid and unenlightened people used be! - without being entirely honest about the present. There is more awareness now that it's demeaning to judge women on their appearance. But appearance and even the beauty cult are very much part of our highly visual modern culture.

Young teenage girls doll themselves up - false eyelashes, contrived eyebrows, skimpy T-shirts - and take pouting, sexy selfies, sometimes daily, posting these pictures online. The world's most famous clan, the Kardashians, have made fortunes by promoting their appearance, rather than by quoting the collected works of Simone de Beauvoir.

Knightley has taken her role as Sally Alexander (who later became a history professor) seriously and projected the anti-Miss World message vigorously. Knightley is an accomplished actress - female actor, if she prefers - but would she be such a star of the big screen if she wasn't also an exceptionally beautiful woman? Would she have been chosen as an icon for Chanel if she didn't have a stunning face and flawless body?

L'Oreal has taken up the feminist message with a current advertising campaign about women supporting one another in business, led by Helen Mirren.

That's fine, and being "worth it" is a positive message; but the product is still about how you look. It's hypocritical to pretend that the world doesn't judge women on their appearance - because that judgment is made every hour of every day. It always has, and probably always will. And it will probably never be applied to men to the same extent.

It's not that nothing has changed. The Women's Libbers who attacked Miss World in 1970 altered the ground-rules - they showed that the way it was organised was dated and absurd. (They also showed how old-fashioned host Hope had become.) The event itself gradually changed - abolishing the swimsuit section of the catwalk section, and stressing what the candidates do as well as displaying their pulchritude.

And it's become much more multi-racial, with young women from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean now dominating the proceedings - Jamaica has won the contest four times in recent years and currently holds the crown. To mark this shift in focus, Julia Morley has announced that this year's contest, it's 70th, will be held in Thailand.

Misbehaviour is spot-on about one key motivation among those 1970 Women's Libbers, a generation of which I was a part - they were often in conflict with their own mothers. This emerges starkly in the memoirs of Australian feminist Germaine Greer - who loathed her mother for wearing so much make-up - and De Beauvoir herself, who wanted her father's choices, not her mother's restrictions.

I get the impression the current generation of young women are much more in harmony with their mothers and that's surely something to celebrate.

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