Michigan State University
Race, Beauty, and Competition: Historicizing Beauty Pageants in South Africa, 1952-2005
This paper presents some preliminary thoughts on a new research project that investigates aspects of the history of beauty contests in South Africa, from the first decade of apartheid to the democratic present. Using archival documentation, press reports, photographs, advertisements, and film, this paper explores two distinctly different beauty pageants: the commercial Miss South Africa for whites (1952-1990); and the black non-commercial Spring Queen contest organized by members of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (1977-present).
In doing so, this paper illustrates how commercial and non-commercial pageants in South Africa developed into arenas of competition that called for the cultivation of special relationships between organizers, sponsors, and performers and their audiences. Beauty contests established, among other things, liminal spaces in which individual contestants and audiences freely, even proudly, represented their community and, simultaneously, competed for higher status and enhanced visibility. These ritual spectacles have played an important role in the rise of mass consumerism, a process that has been largely overlooked, or poorly understood, by scholars of pre-1994 South Africa. White-owned businesses such as cosmetic companies, for instance, expanded the beauty industry by sponsoring pageants, which opened new markets for skin-lightening creams, hair-straighteners, lipstick and other personal care products in black townships. The initial research suggests that, historically, beauty tournaments have been more than simply venues for the crude objectification and exploitation of women. Pageants constituted a terrain of struggle for the definition and expression of changing values, norms, forms and meanings of beauty. In black working-class communities in particular, these spectacles of sensuality can be seen as dramaturgical expressions of the black imaginary, which provided women (and men!) with a fun, albeit, temporary escape from the drudgery of racist oppression and material poverty. The main goals of this paper are: (1) to critically evaluate the assumption that contestants, organizers, and audiences of beauty contests were merely “unthinking pawns” of patriarchal capitalist forces, and (2) to show how African, coloured, and Indian women were agents of their own history, though, as the old Marxian adage reminds us, not in circumstances of their own choosing.