Louise Upston and beauty pageants

There’s a lot to unpack in our Minister of Women’s Affairs comments on beauty pageants and feminism, as reported in Stuff.

She praises beauty pageants for giving young women (sorry, “young girls”) confidence in their abilities- as though contestants like Louise Nelson, an RNZAF helicopter crewmember, couldn’t possibly find confidence in her abilities from anywhere else in her life.

Jack Yan, who I now regret giving my number 3 preference to in local body elections, says the Miss Universe New Zealand pageant is totally modern and cool these days – why, they don’t even have a swimsuit section! What they do have, though, is a fairly un-modern list of criteria for contestants:

  • You must be between 18 and 27 years old
  • You must “be female”, or if you were not “born female” you must have undergone surgery and be “legally certified” as a woman
  • You must not be married, and never have given birth to a child.

And, so obvious it doesn’t even need to be written down: you must be thin, and conventionally attractive. It’s still a goddamn beauty pageant after all.

Ms Upston then talks a bit about what feminism means to her, and why she isn’t a feminist. My interpretation of her comments is below.

I’m not interested in being a flag-waver
Because feminists are angry scary people who make a fuss!

I’m not interested in having colleagues who get there because they’re a woman, and they’re the token one.
Feminism is all about promoting women just because they’re women! I’m not one of Those Women!

Upston was a fan of old-fashioned chivalry, such as men opening doors for women
Look! I’m one of the cool chicks! I’m unthreatening! I understand women traditionally lack the skills to open doors!

It bothers me greatly that in 2014, the top career choices for girls continue to be hairdressers and air hostesses.
This obviously has nothing to do with us still expecting women to ~gain confidence~ by participating in beauty pageants!

Upston’s priorities include … promoting women to positions of leadership
But in a totally different way from that tokenistic feminist promotion of women!

I will give Louise Upston a bit of credit: another of her priorities is about ending domestic and sexual violence against women. But she apparently proposes to do that while ignoring root causes like “women are still treated like their value is derived from their physical attractiveness”, or having a good think about why “chivalry” is coded as  “men opening doors for women”. For all that feminism routinely gets criticised for focusing too much on different expectations of men and women, the anti-feminist crowd sure do like to reinforce the gender divide.

The chief problem is this: by waving a big friendly “I’m not one of those scary feminists” flag of her own, Upston signals she wants to write off the movement which has done all the hard work of identifying and challenging these issues. She only wants to do things which aren’t going to upset the status quo too much. So it’s probably another three years of “look how many women like Paula Rebstock and Margaret Bazley we’ve managed to appoint to boards! Progress!”

Ending sexual violence and gender discrimination isn’t something we can do by leaning in or talking about individual women gaining confidence. There are big, scary structural issues in play. Those issues are only reinforced by outdated rubbish like beauty pageants, and overturning them requires far more radical action than I think Louise Upston, or anyone in the National government, is capable of.