On Beauty.

There’s a long blog conversation on beauty going on in cyberspace, and I’d thought I’d jump in with what little I know (precisely because it has little to do with gender and “ethnic”/national notions of beauty, but more on the pageants themselves).

Too long to quote here are two brilliant high-wire ethnographic accounts of gay beauty pageants and balls in Fenella Cannell‘s Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Martin Manalansan‘s Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2003). (The latter also has an exhaustive discussion of “byuti.”)

I’ll just cite a couple of passages, pulled somewhat out of context (since they’re talking about two different places), from a couple of recent books:

The first, from Mark Johnson‘s Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines (Berg, 1997).

…the forms and idioms of beauty that are circulated… are informed by a Western image of glamour and beauty… …gay beauty contests have a familiar resonance about them, from the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna, to the ‘ethnic/national’ costumes which faithfully reproduce familiar stereotypes (53).

…beauty contests are filled with instances of stylistic and verbal discourse which are clearly embedded in colonial ministrations. Beauty is about education and the mastery of the English language. Beauty is about good citizenship and a professional orientation (54).

And from Rick Bonus‘s Locating Filipino Americans: Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Space (Temple University Press, 2000).

Filipino Americans find in these pageants social spaces that reflect their tenuous positions as Filipinos who, in their eyes, are not fully American (by virtue of their first-generation immigrant status) and not fully Filipino anymore either (owing to their departure and distance from the homeland). The orientation to the bayan, both in the context of activities in the United States and in reference to the homeland, is one anchor they hold onto to mitigate these tensions (122).

And I’ll end, out of chronological order, with a recounting of Philippine News‘ “Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA” beauty contest in 1979. This was, somewhat sadly, a replacement for an Outstanding Youth Contest which was cancelled for lack of response. “In place of it,” they wrote, “we are announcing the start of a new contest which according to our survey is the kind of contest you want us to run.”

Open to any permanent resident of “Filipino or Filipino-American descent (irrespective of blood ratio)” — an interesting throwback to the days when “Filipino American” exclusively referred to people of mixed racial heritage — the Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA was launched. Regional finals in eleven different cities culminated, after much front-page hype, in the crowning of Yvonne Flores from Suisun City, California after her “stirring vocal rendition of George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All.'”

[I suspect some of you might be amused by the pageant’s details. Sponsored by the Fil-Am Veterans and Federal Retired Association of Fairfield, California, Flores defeated, among others, first runner-up Lisa Manibog (who could have only been related to Monty, probably the first Filipino American mayor ever) from Monterey Park (who performed a “very symbolic American-Indian ritualistic dance”), Theresa Abueg (who “played ‘The Entertainer’ on her flute”), Jacqueline Guerrero (who danced “a jazz-ballet interpretation of Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver'”) and Rose Tibayan (for “a Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates”). [From Aljovin, Andrea. “Yvonne Picked as Magandang Filipina in Dazzling Grand Finals.” Philippine News December 1-7 1979: 1, 12.]

I just had to write that again: “Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates.”]

(What Philippine News de-emphasized, however, was that contestants had to buy 35 subscriptions each to enter the pageant, which earned the nice sum of $56,000 for the newspaper altogether.)

Sudden digression into historical context: 1979 was a crucial period in Philippine News‘s history — a time, for instance, when one of their regular columnists, Steve Psinakis, would coyly allude to participation in the Light-A-Fire Movement. It was also a time when — seven long years after the declaration of Martial Law, but still four years away from Ninoy Aquino bleeding to death on that airport tarmac — the anti-Marcos opposition in the United States was riven (perhaps they always were) by ideological conflicts. This was also a period when the Movement for a Free Philippines-affiliated Philippine News was consistently red-baiting the Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino, headquartered on the other side of the San Francisco Bay Bridge; the sniping between PN and Ang Katipunan reached its height this year.

Rather predictably, AK went straight to the politics of the contest, describing it as “a strange blend of fashion show, talent contest, an anti-KDP lecture, and slideshow all rolled into one.” In an unsigned editorial, the KDP pointed out how such pageants promote sexism, calling the swimsuit contest “downright disgusting:”

The pageant’s sponsor, Philippine News… [claims] that the contest was meant to promote Philippine heritage and unity. Anyone… however would surely agree that there was neither a performance nor presentation… which vaguely resembled Philippine culture or heritage.

No, the Magandang Filipina pageant was not an innocent competition, a meeting of the community’s “best and beautiful.” Rather it was a masked business venture which [sic] exploited the contestants and sections of the community.

…Like grand terno balls, cocktail parties and other expensive forms of social activities, the beauty contest diverts our attention from more pressing concerns. …if we expended the same amount of money, energy and time on a fund raiser for some community cause or for the political refugee problem… we could justifiably claim that our efforts were progressive, positive and productive. A beauty contest can hardly claim the same. [From “Beauty Contests: An Exercise in Irrelevance.” Ang Katipunan, December 1-15, 1979: 3.]

Paradoxically, the Philippine News would probably also agree with the above statement; back in those days, the newspaper constantly trod a fine line between the two images of heroism (as part of the self-proclaimed oppositional vanguard against the Marcos regime) and profligacy (look no further if you wanted pages and pages of pictures of couples in their tacky finery). (I argue anyhow that the newspaper was beset by contradictory impulses: to consistently demonstrate immigrant success, and to strive for political awareness by highlighting the community’s marginality.)

But back to the pageants then and now — rather than taking one side or the other, I would propose a more nuanced middle ground: one that recognized the problematic gender politics inherent in such spectacles (that reproduced colonial aesthetics and ways of seeing) but simultaneously understanding the temporary cohesive social function (and a “necessary” evocation of an arguably reified Filipino tradition) that the pageants afforded an alienated Filipino American community.

Last digression: beauty pageants in Manila are a different story, however. Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran’s Miss Universe victories in 1969 and 1973 lent an odd veneer of legitimacy to Imelda Marcos’ increasingly glittery and warped aesthetic project; only two years after Martial Law, Manila would host the 1974 contest in the newly-constructed (supposedly in 77 days!) Folk Arts Theater, with the crown going to Amparo Munoz, hailing from the Philippines’ old colonial master, Spain.

Okay, I really will end this rambling post with an anecdote about Imelda (shades of white picket fences around squatter areas!), serving to remind us that her “truth and beauty” campaign wasn’t merely conducted on an individual level, but aimed as well at the urban landscape of “the City of Man:”

Workers, up day and night in an effort to finish the interior and grounds of the Philippine International Convention Center, were forced to cut corners in order to finish the job [in time for the IMF/World Bank conference in 1976]. One patch of brownish grass was even sprayed with green pain to freshen it up. But the entire conference was nearly ruined because of one stubborn bulldozer. It had become hopelessly stuck the night before the grand opening in the thick mud surrounding the PICC. …workers frantically tried to remove it only to see it sink more deeply into the muck. When Imelda arrived on the scene, she was predictably outraged. But… she, with a little help from the toiling workers, remedied the problem in time. Full-grown coconut palms were rushed to the site and planted in concentric rows around the offending bulldozer. The visitors never knew that the instant coconut grove was not part of the original landscape plan…. [From Victoria Luna, “Another Extravaganza In The Making,” Ang Katipunan, May 16-31, 1979, p. 5.]

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