Pageants ignite debate between idealization and commercialization of women's bodies

By Linh Do   October 4, 2022 | 09:31 pm PT
Pageants ignite debate between idealization and commercialization of women's bodies
Top 10 contestants of Miss Grand Vietnam 2022. Photo by Kieng Can
After the government decentralized and eased regulations, allowing provincial authorities to license beauty contests, an onslaught of vulgar, mediocre pageants is causing nostalgia for the erstwhile system.

Many people do not like what they are seeing and prefer the past, when two or three prestigious government-endorsed pageants unearthed exquisite beauties whose names audiences remembered and who went on to do meaningful social work or build great careers.

Beauty contests are being rapidly privatized, with 22 contests being licensed so far in 2022, all with similar and confusing names and a blur of unmemorable faces who devote their youth to participating in one contest or another.

One example of an emerging willy-nilly market is the recent competition for an official Vietnamese title between two brand-new contests, Miss Peace Vietnam and Miss Grand Vietnam.

While the English names are distinguishable, both have registered for the same Vietnamese title, ‘Hoa Hau Hoa Binh Vietnam,’ because the ‘peace’ in the former name translates into ‘hoa binh’ while the local leg of Miss Grand International also prefers a broad understanding of ‘grand’ as ‘hoa binh’ or ‘peace.’

For three months neither side backed down, but as the award night approached on September 11 the organizers of Miss Peace Vietnam thought better of the situation, decided not to squabble further, and asked culture authorities for permission to carry out the event without any Vietnamese translation of the English title, making it the first beauty contest to be so conducted.

With this and other causes for public criticism like small scale, few contestants, lax criteria, mediocre contestants, winners with damaging rumors, and even fixing of awards, many wonder if beauty pageants are becoming too cheap.

But in response is an equally vehement belief that the number of beauty pageants is not too many, negative consequences are inevitable, and time, critical audiences and market mechanisms will weed out the bad, leading to a rise in quality and a prosperous entertainment industry.

Magical market

A firm belief that the government should ease regulations and encourage enterprise is perhaps best expressed by the man dubbed the "soul" of Decree No. 144 on performing arts which took effect last March: People’s Artist Nguyen Quang Vinh, chairman of the Hanoi Music Association and former acting director of the Department of Performing Arts.

In various media interviews in recent times, Vinh, like other culture officials, has said it is not abnormal to have a few dozen beauty contests a year, audiences should exercise their own judgement and market mechanisms would ensure only good things last.

To those who believe two or three quality pageants a year are adequate, Vinh’s reply is that such a limit is arbitrary and simply could not be justified.

As for the dark side of the market economy, he says it could only be minimized and not eliminated, and people should accept this fact if they want the prosperity the market would bring.

As for those who hold a feminist view against the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies inherent in beauty contests, Vinh thinks they are just a small minority.

He feels Vietnamese society will grow up and move on from beauty pageants one day, but has to be an organic process rather than by decree by authority.

Indeed, while Miss Universe is being put up for sale due to low ratings and revenue losses, and other pageants worldwide have been falling out of favor for reasons ranging from unrealistic ideals and audiences’ ennui to prostitution, prize fixing and vulgar clothing scandals and economic downturns and competition from other forms of entertainment, beauty shows remain popular in Vietnam.

On social media, numerous groups with hundreds of thousands of members discuss beauty pageants and Vietnamese candidates at international contests such as Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Grand International, and Miss Earth attract huge numbers of votes and interactions online.

Last month 15,000 people showed up to watch the 2022 Miss World Vietnam awards night live at MerryLand Quy Nhon Resort, fulfilling a common expectation that beauty pageants help promote culture, tourism and the economy.

The association of feminine beauty with masculine money is encapsulated by designer Si Hoang, head of the jury of the aforementioned Miss Peace Vietnam pageant, who spoke for not a few at a press conference in July.

Hoang said the idea of well-rounded beauty queens finding their matches in wealthy, successful men to build happy homes together is a good ideal that does not have to carry a negative connotation, as long as the men in question are single.

The problem, however, is that this ideal is not easy to achieve.

Media expert Le Ngoc Son dismisses it as an illusion that many girls in Vietnam have these days, and says instead they should invest their precious youth in studying to build a good future.

"It is natural, understandable and acceptable to pursue beauty as a route to success, but when many women follow the same road, it makes one worry," Son tells VnExpress.

Contemporary Vietnamese society does seem to be engaging in a dizzy race to compete for superficial values like beauty, he says.

He thinks this state of affairs calls for official intervention, saying if not the government then at least provincial authorities should oversee beauty pageants.

He wants Vietnam to learn from China, which he says has done well in the last 10 years to manage the cultural sphere.

Like Son, most commentators, however liberal, support some form of government oversight because of market complexity.

The Department of Performing Arts has itself established inspection teams in some places to make sure beauty contests comply with the law.

But the debate rages on and public opinion continues to be divided particularly in controversial cases.

Many for instance object to the idea of a ‘Miss Teen’ pageant, believing young people should not be so blatantly encouraged to pursue something that does not sit well with Vietnamese culture notwithstanding the fact the 18-year-old age requirement for beauty pageants has been scrapped.

In June the organizers of the 2022 Miss Teen Vietnam announced they were looking for candidates aged 13 to 16 for a contest aimed to help "young people become more confident and bring their teenage Vietnamese beauty to interact with international friends."

It sparked instant outrage, and the HCMC Department of Culture and Sports promptly sent in inspectors, who found that at the time of its announcement, the company organizing Miss Teen Vietnam, Q Talent, had not applied for a license.

While it remains unclear whether culture authorities will greenlight this pageant, many people have made their decisions.

Duong Ky Anh, a well-known poet and former editor-in-chief of Tien Phong Newspaper which organizes Miss Vietnam, is one of the opponents of a Miss Teen Vietnam pageant.

He believes contests for young people should have a different concept and name appropriate for Vietnamese culture such as "Be Khoe, Be Dep" (Healthy Kids, Beautiful Kids) or "Hoc Sinh Thanh Lich" (Elegant Students) and highlight their skills and talents rather than focus on beauty and be an underage copycat of grown-ups’ actions.

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