Does ‘Miss Universe’ Pageant Objectify Women?

I have always considered pageants like Miss Universe (MU) as a platform that objectifies  women. Contestants are ‘displayed’ as objects, apparently being judged on their physical  appearance, which reinforces stereotypical standards of beauty, although to some extent  consideration is supposedly given to their intellect.  

Although the MU organisation represents that the platform provides a “safe space for women  to share their stories and drive impact personally, professionally, and philanthropically”, what  happens in the background for these women to get there, gets no public scrutiny until recently,  when the Indonesia scenario surfaced. 

Of course, the intent of such pageants may be, to choose an ‘iconic’ woman annually, to serve  as an inspirational leader and role model to their communities and fans around the world. Yet,  pitting women against one another, involves a ‘toxic’ degree of physical beauty, with the  women being scrutinised from a set of ‘patriarchal lens’.  

The brand of the MU had grown over the years, creating a ‘dream’ and aspiration for many  women, world-over. From economically developed countries to smaller nations, these women  yearn to be that ‘iconic-figure’, encouraged to be their country’s representatives by supposedly  showcasing their identity and intellect, to stand-out from the rest. According to MU  Organisation, this annual icon should showcase confidence, be able to articulate her drive, be  authentic and credible, exhibit grace and understand the values of the MU brand and the  responsibilities of the title. These seem to reflect that such pageant is not just about superficial,  physical aspects of a woman. 

Yet, regardless of what pageant organisers may say, physical beauty is a prime-criteria for  judges, which may serve to ‘shake’ a person’s confidence if she dreams to represent her  country as the ‘iconic’ woman. If indeed the physical and superficial aspects of a woman are  not key criteria, the ‘swimsuit’ round, for example, has no reason to be such a ‘highlight’, where  contestants are required to prance on stage in skimpy 2-piece swimwear, being paraded and  avidly watched by millions of viewers. This to me, is objectifying. 

All these bring us to the subject matter at hand – the allegation of sexual harassment in one  of the MU Organisation franchises in Indonesia. In my opinion, given the fact that physical  appearance plays a key role in choosing the winner of MU, plus the fact that a number of  aspects of the competition itself end up objectifying the contestants, whether intended or  otherwise, it would not be surprising if the Indonesian incident were not an isolated case. When  physical beauty becomes a key factor, together with a group of women who desperately aspire  to be the ‘iconic’ annual figure, the stage is set for possible abuse and sexual harassment.  

From a ‘perception’ perspective, the fact that the MU Organisation had immediately severed  ties with its Indonesian franchisee, who also holds the license for MU Malaysia, would not  necessarily make this issue disappear for the MU Organisation. Sexual harassment  allegations are always complex. Every such case will have its own set of lessons on how an  organisation can better handle and communicate around such reputation-threatening  situations. 

Going public about the immediate severance of relationship without looking into the matter  carefully, may backfire for the MU Organisation. The fact that MU Organisation issued a  statement confirming that the franchisee “had not lived up to their brand standards, ethics and  expectations” may result in retaliation by the franchisee. Taking such action that impacts  livelihood and business by letting reports of sexual misconduct go unchecked, may result in  the issue escalating into a full-blown crisis. 

Another aspect that needed to be considered is, if indeed sexual harassment did take place,  what did the MU Organisation know, and when did they know it? These may give rise to  questions on MU Organisation’s legitimacy – in that the criteria of judging itself, may be seen  to create an overarching culture where appalling acts of sexual predation apparently could  take place over a long period of time. This may also give rise to potential questions about the  MU Organisation dragging their feet, ignoring or even minimising ‘signals’ or warnings that are  embedded in the criteria. 

Organisations must know, as a general principle that even with passage of time, sexual  misconducts will eventually come to the surface. ‘Putting a lid’ on such matters or simply  severing ties, will not ‘cut it’. Organisations must act decisively and appropriately and  understand the whole scenario, to be able to pre-empt and manage issues arising,  immediately and effectively.  

MU Organisation must be seen to take such allegations extremely seriously. If the franchisee  perpetrator is ‘guilty’, they need to be held accountable and MU Organisation should be seen  as playing an important role in ensuring such accountability, as the franchisor. The fact that  the Organisation had severed ties with the franchisee, without apparently showing any interest  in ‘getting to the bottom of it’ may be perceived as ‘washing their hands’ of this ‘stain’. 

As a general rule in such cases also, there should never be emphasis on ‘investigating where  the leak of such allegations’ came from. This may be perceived as a ‘witch hunt’ and potentially  create perception of a cover-up. What is important to protect the organisation’s brand is that  the organisation had taken the appropriate, effective and timely action when such allegations  arise – this is what the public wants to know.  

Additionally, protecting the victim’s identity is paramount. Even in cases where the accuser  has made a public appearance, the MU Organiser should avoid sharing any information about  the accuser and continue to protect the accuser’s privacy.  

Finally, with the potential of this allegation becoming a full-blown criminal or civil case, the MU  criteria itself should be able to stand up to scrutiny. A key question that arises may be, has the  MU Organisation created a potential platform where sexual misconduct can take place and  even thrive? This is another aspect that the communication and legal teams need to look into  in managing the crisis at hand. 

In short, for sexual harassment cases, the reputational stakes are high. If unmanaged, they  will have a massive impact on an organisation’s brand reputation and survival. In the case of  MU, bearing in mind the fact that such pageants may be seen as a ‘breeding ground’ for the  objectification of women, perhaps the MU and other pageantry organisations should look into  the focus of their criteria for winners. 

Instead of superficial and physical considerations being perceived as key factors, as normally  portrayed in the MU finals, the MU Organisation should ensure that the whole pageant places  emphasis on choosing and developing an ‘iconic-figure’ who really represents a woman of  grace, intellect, positive values, authenticity and above all, one who indeed can represent the  woman of the future, cutting across nations, culture, race and religion. 

By Prof. Mohd Said Bani C.M. Din, Managing Director, BzBee Consult, President, Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Malaysia

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