Recently the Sami News had a story about a beauty contest to be organized by several Finno-Ugric organizations and bodies. The contest is for “Finno-Ugric girls” and it’s called the Northern Star 2009. The final contest will be held in next March in Syktyvkar, Komi Republic and it’s open to those Finno-Ugric ‘girls’ who have won ethnic beauty contests in their local areas in 2008. The website for the contest was only in Russian so I wasn’t able to find more information about it.
My gut reaction was repugnance and I immediately thought, after having been reading Anna Politkovskaya’s book Putin’s Russia (the assassinated Russian journalist who was critical of Putin’s regime – more on her books shortly), that as there’s no bread, give the folk at least circus entertainment. But alas, it’s not only in Russia where these kind of “ethnic” beauty contests are taking place.
On November 19, 2007, Fox News ran a story titled “‘Miss Navajo’ is glimpse into unique brand of respect for women.” Miss Navajo pageant has been running since 1952, when it was “something of a popularity contest, with the winner crowned based on how much applause she got from the audience. And until the early 1960s, two Miss Navajos were named; a traditional one, and ‘one who looked like Jackie Kennedy.'” In its contemporary form, “contestants are required to speak their native language, make fry bread and butcher a sheep,” of course besides being beautiful, between 18 to 25 years old, single, having a high school diploma or GED and no children. Billy Luther, a documentary film maker whose mother was was crowned Miss Navajo in 1966, has even made a film abount the pageant. You can check the film’s official website for screenings. Apparently, it was already screened at the Skábmagovat Sami Film Festival earlier this year.
Navajo scholar Jennifer Denetdale* has analyzed the reformulation of traditions in the context of the Miss Navajo contest. She argues that the beauty contests show how the roles of men and women have been bifurcated in contemporary society so that men can freely participate in all public spheres while women’s public participation has been limited to certain spheres only. Often the participation of men and women is further controlled by a strong double standard.
For example, Miss Navajo has been imposed very stringent expectations of high morality (she is not allowed to smoke, drink or use drugs and if she has a boyfriend, it has to remain ‘private’). At the same time, the ‘immoral’ behaviour of Navajo male politicians (drinking in public, violent behaviour), widely reported in the media, is not condemned. Denetdale suggests that while Miss Navajo represents, to some extent, Navajo cultural values and ideal womanhood, it is important to acknowledge that the roots of beauty contests are in the values of the white middle class according to which femininity is characterized by chastity, virtue and morality. Tradition, therefore, can be a means by which legitimize certain gender roles in society.
We don’t have Miss Sami pageants – at least yet. I’ve heard a couple of middle-aged Sami male politicians suggesting it would be great to have beauty contests in Sápmi too. It would be interesting to know what would be the main criteria for winning – being blonde or being able to slaughter a reindeer? Just kidding, it’s not interesting at all and I shouldn’t be giving ideas to anybody.
*Denetdale, Jennifer Nez (2006). “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses: The Navajo Nation, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition.” Wicazo Sa Review 21(1): 9-28.