Two hours before the New Year is ushered in, this accidental columnist struggles to write the last essay for the year. It isn’t easy. Writing has never been easy for someone who doesn’t write in pursuit of a muse or a career. I write because, fortuitously, I have been given the opportunity to address a much wider audience on matters close to my heart and on pressing issues of the day.
What to reflect on as the year winds to a close? Filipina beauty, Pia Wurtzbach, winning the Miss Universe title after a forty-two year drought and under such dramatic, if controversial, circumstances deserves some thoughtful commentary from this corner. After all, the euphoria of her bitter sweet victory has settled and perhaps netizens will no longer pounce on any opinion that so much as sounds au contraire.
I must admit that as early as high school in a convent school for girls, I instinctively learned to disdain beauty contests thinking them frivolous, immodest and generally of little relevance to an educated person’s pursuit of a life of substance. My subsequent exposure to the women’s liberation movement in the US (through my eldest sister who became a feminist while doing her postgraduate studies) reinforced my spontaneous reaction with refreshingly radical and intelligent views on being a woman outside of the traditional mold.
My attitude towards beauty contests was sealed when I became a political activist in my college years. Faced with the reality of such weighty problems of Philippine society that the national democratic movement identified as “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism”; stirred by the social ferment of the times and the unfolding political crisis pre-martial law; and challenged to respond without regard to conventional sexually-determined roles – truth to tell, beauty contests then were the farthest thing from my mind.
Beauty tilts were not only irrelevant, they stereotyped women with their Barbie-doll definition of beauty and served to keep them locked into intellectually vapid and socio-culturally meaningless preoccupations. They kept women from taking their rightful place in the forefront of the people’s struggle for fundamental social change.
It didn’t take long for MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan) — the precursor of the progressive women’s alliance, GABRIELA, and outlawed since martial law days up to the present — to organize the groundbreaking protest actions against the Miss Universe pageant held in Manila in the 70s. Title holders such as Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Nelia Sancho and Maita Gomez began to speak out about the patent as well as more insidiously harmful effects of these contests especially on impressionable young women looking for role models.
Student activists who took to the hills in order to fight the Marcos dictatorship included strong-willed, daring and outstanding young women leaders such as Lorena Barros, Maita Gomez, Concha Araneta and Judy Taguiwalo, to name a few. But there were hundreds of thousands more in that generation who broke out of the confines of the domesticated, feudal role as homemaker or the prettified, bourgeois role as trophy girlfriend/wife to become their own persons. They were New People’s Army fighters (pejoratively labelled “amazons” by the Philippine military), underground organizers, aboveground activists or just ordinary, independent working women forced by economic circumstance or fired by the winds of change to try to break out of prevailing social confines and reach their full human potential.
By the eighties, nineties and into the 21st century, career paths had opened up for many women most notably in the professions and in both white and blue collar jobs. The predominance of women overseas workers derived from the fact that openings for domestic helpers, caregivers, nurses and teachers grew exponentially over male-dominated fields such as in construction in the Middle East and seafaring around the globe.
Of course the country had its first woman president, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, the wife of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino who rallied the people against the despot after her husband’s assassination. Then came another woman president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a seasoned politician who was also catapulted to power after another unarmed uprising that toppled an unpopular ruling regime. (Not that it made much difference on the kind of elitist, corrupt and reactionary governments they eventually presided over that they were women.)
Meantime, women activists both locally and abroad did not bother too much about protesting beauty contests and what seemed to be vestiges of the retrogressive culture associated with them. After all women had more career choices and opportunities didn’t they? They were breaking barriers to personal and social advancement like never before, right?
In time, the beauty pageants mushroomed once more as much as the society pages in broadsheets regained their unabashed prominence. Filipinas with Caucasian genetic mix and the family names to boot began to roost in the plentiful local contests for pulchritude with the ultimate dream of being crowned in an international competition.
Like in the sport of boxing where the Philippines takes pride in having a Manny Pacquiao, a Filipina winning an international beauty title generates a vicarious sense of achievement for the country. After all wining comes about through dint of hard work and perseverance; it is also both lucrative and prestigious. What’s more the owners of the franchise to the most sought-after pageants have learned to justify the contests with purportedly “relevant” topics in the Q & A portion and more popular charitable causes such as environmental protection and AIDS education.
Now we have a stunning winner in the person of Pia Wurtzbach who nails the 30-second Q & A including the tricky question on whether the US should have a military presence in her country. That it was unfair to ask her opinion on a politically complex and hotly disputed issue given the US audience that she had to pander to was not lost on some perceptive observers. But most interpreted her roundabout answer to mean she welcomed US military presence. The Philippines is after all a former colony of the US, as she so blithely pointed out.
While nationalists were disappointed or even out rightly critical of her politically naïve stand, many commentators thought she did well as evidenced by her victory. There were those who even jumped to the conclusion she spoke for most Filipinos who presumably welcome US military presence against a resurgent China claiming ninety percent of the South China Sea.
Indeed we have come full circle. Beauty pageants have not only reestablished their raison d’etre in the so-called era of women’s emancipation from sexist stereotyping, they are once again utilized as a means to popularize political and even ideological positions in a not-so-subtle but nonetheless quite effective way.
In a more enlightened and egalitarian world of the future, where young girls will truly be free to choose who and what they want to be, perhaps there will be a new type of “beauty” contest not limited to or focused on perfectly proportioned and toned bodies, finely chiseled faces, and charming, pithy answers to nonsensical or biased questions. Then perhaps the Pia Wurtzbachs of the world can make a more indelible and substantial contribution to bettering it.
That is my fervent, if quixotic, New Year’s wish.
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
4 January 2016