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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

entry arrow5:59 AM | The Weight of Beauty

A little less than three weeks ago, in time for Negros Occidental's celebration of the Panaad Festival, I was invited by the organizers of the Lin-ay sang Negros beauty pageant to serve in the panel of judges for the pre-pageant competition. The task was deceptively simple: we were told to trim down, by means of points, the Lin-ay finalists through a parade of exquisitely rendered festival costumes, wondrously embellished gowns, shapely swimsuits, and of course through bursts of talent clocked down to a challenging 90 seconds for each candidate. The pre-pageant show -- directed with a sure hand by Rene Hinojales from a sharply written script by Al Melgar -- was a well-oiled mechanism, like the whole Lin-ay organization (headed by Ian de Ramos) itself. Everything ran like clockwork, and I found myself having new respect for my Negrense kins across Cuernos de Negros in the western side.

I may have been the token "virginal" judge in the panel, which included Faith Javellana, Laarni Aguilar, Tres Solis, and Antonietta Lopez. Unlike them, it was my first time sitting on such a panel, although like most Filipinos, I was no stranger to the nuances of pageant shows.

All of us have fond recall of pageant moments, from remembered brilliance of candidates (such as Charlene Gonzales's evocation of the number of islands in the Philippines during high or low tide in Miss Universe 1994), to even more remembered gaffes (like Jeannie Andersen's terse "Quiet please" admonition for the audience in Bb. Pilipinas 2001, or the funny bit about a contestant mistaking a carabao for "a black cow" in Miss Earth 2004). Faith, for example, gave us a grand time in her remembrances of having judged a thousand and one pageants -- including a curious incident where a contestant bit off a chicken's head for the talent portion, and chucked the bleeding head toward the horrified judges.

My visit to Bacolod was memorable, although the fact of having to make almost quick but fair judgment on 24 contestants made my head swim. What do you say, for example, about a gown that looked like a wedding cake? Or a festival costume that made our heads turn simply from the fact that it was made from the cocoons of silkworms? How do you tell which girl was best, and why? But prevail we in the board did -- and later we learned that Ms. Bacolod won the title in the final show. I remember her wowing us with her pageant competence; but it was a great batch of girls, and I was glad I made a contribution to the success of the show. Also this realization: the judges found ourselves going for the most part beyond the superficial -- heaping it on us to look for signs of inner brilliance among the women.

Beauty pageants. There are many ways to look at a beauty pageant -- the most common being a view of the entire enterprise (nay, an industry) as nothing more than mere entertainment, a casual parade of flesh. For some, it is something ridiculously frivolous, and -- especially if you are a feminist of a militant sort -- a "patently patriarchal exercise in sexism."

Beauty pageants, as one famous friend once told me, are an undignified estimation of humanity as nothing more than the sum of body parts, made to take part in a pseudo-fashion show. I do not necessarily agree with this, because I do like pageants. They're fun to watch. And like your ordinary postmodern man, I may at first think of shows like these as remnants of a "sexist hegemony," but I can also think of the wonderfully subversive ways one can upend these expectations and make pageants bear the burden of something loftier than mere ogling of flesh. Proof of this later on.

I vaguely remember, when I was a high school boy some years ago, reading something like the following in Sunday Inquirer Magazine: In the old days, virgins were routinely sacrificed to appease the gods; today we hold beauty pageants instead. That witticism stayed with me through the years, refusing to relinquish space in my haphazard snatches of cobwebbed memory. Perhaps this was because I found the observation funny, because it felt like a sociological truth. And perhaps because it also made me rethink the nature of a favorite staple in Filipino popular culture.

I will not be the first one to take note that the Philippines seems to be eternally pageant-crazy, with every single sitio or barangay or municipality, or school even, having some form of pageants for both women and men, some even attempting to navigate the shadowy divides of gender via Miss Gay tilts. Today, there are even more alternatives -- bikini opens among them, as well as body-builders' physique competitions and PTA-sponsored money contests involving grade school girls.

Sometimes I think that this impulse to conduct "searches for beauties" is an all-too-human preoccupation.

Peter Paul Rubens,
The Judgment of Paris (c. 1636, National Gallery, London)

Greek mythology, for example, gives us a tale of a "beauty pageant" to top all beauty pageants: the goddess Eris (also known as Discord) -- because she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis -- created a golden apple to be the prize in a pageant between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris, prince of Troy, was to judge them, eventually choosing Aphrodite as the winner after the goddess promised to assist him in the abduction and wedding of Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta. The immediate result was the devastation known as the Trojan War.

Beauty pageants begetting warfare? Not always. The early pageants in the country were rigorously attended annual events, grounded to a halt only by the clouds of war, with the coming of the Japanese to the Philippines. Pageants had always been a popular tradition in the country, as old as the republic itself. In the early days of the last century, during the American colonial period, we were already crowning Carnival Queens for expositions held primarily to advertise Philippine products.

McRonald Banderlipe, in Jose Wendell Capili's seminal Mabuhay to Beauties: Profiles of Beauties and Essays on Pageants (Milflores, 2003), writes that "for visitors to the carnivals, it was not sufficient to only view various attractions in the carnival without viewing the carnival queens, which epitomized the Filipino's romantic nature. Among the more interesting activities during the early carnival queen contests were the colorful parades on water featuring the Queen of the West, the Queen of the Orient, and the Queen of Peace with their beautiful floats."

Beauty queens then were daughters from prominent families, chosen for their societal connections as well as for their regal bearing -- counting among them Paz Marquez Benitez, who is our first published short story writer in English whose "Dead Stars" is still a powerful staple in the Philippine literature canon.

World War II may have erased the existence of carnival queen selections, but the tradition was resurrected in 1947 when a beauty pageant was organized to promote an airline. Five years later, the Miss Philippines tilt was officially organized to select the country's first representative to the Miss Universe pageant -- itself once starting as a showcase for a brand of bikini wear (a breakaway contest from the Miss America tilt, after the 1951 winner Yolande Betbeze refused to be photographed wearing the sponsoring bikini company's apparel).

The Miss Silliman pageant, which was first organized in 1946 by The Sillimanian in a campus-wide search for the most popular college girl, may be the oldest -- and still running -- beauty pageant in local history, older even than Miss Universe or Bb. Pilipinas. Patria Obsequio was the first Miss Silliman, then known as Most Popular Co-ed.

Why the popularity? Banderlipe writes: "As a favorite pastime among the FIlipinos, beauty contests are undeniably a microcosm of the present-day standards of our society. They can also be a means for some women to become functional in society." He notes that Miss America, for example, prides itself as a scholarship grant rather than a beauty pageant title, and that the Bb. Pilipinas organization operates mainly as a charity. He also takes note of title-holders who have made names for themselves, using their titles as necessary shortcuts for a beloved cause, as a means to be heard in a society that entertains mostly male voices. Banderlipe quotes Miss India Lara Dutta, the 2000 Miss Universe, as saying: "I believe that pageants give a woman a platform and enable her to foray into the various fields, whether it be entrepreneurship, the military, or politics. And it gives a woman a chance to voice out her opinions, and makes women strong and independent as they are right now."

I agree with this. In a previous post, I've said that one of my favorite people in history is Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson, the first Jewish winner of that pageant who used her title to confront the issue of racism and anti-Semitism in America. Even when openly shunned by large segments of the American population for being Jewish, she embarked on a tour of American cities to educate people about tolerance. That she held the crown of Miss America readily provided an audience for her views. I said that she made great strides in that respect, that she was a true beauty queen.

I am thinking of pageants these days because I seem to be surrounded by it. I am one of the advisers for this year's Miss Silliman, for example -- helping mould a 60-year old pageant which is, I think, wearing its age on its sleeve. (Something's got to be done to revive its flagging fortunes.)

Even closer to home, Mark -- I've posted this before -- has been selected to be among the 25 candidates vying for the Hari ng Negros title. (A reminder: The organizers have launched a Mr. Friendster side-competition, the winner of which automatically gets a slot in the top ten semi-finalist circle. The Mr. Friendster competition starts from May 15 to July 1. Every friend added to a candidate's account will be one point. Every testimonial will be five points. The candidate with the most number of points by 8:00 pm on July 1 will be declared Mr. Friendster. Please add Mark up with this email address: mrjimalalud2006@yahoo.com.)

We like pageants, I guess, because they present an enduring tradition that approximates popular concern. That despite everything in a crisis in our country, we still have the guts to appreciate beauty and not apologize for it. Pageants are in our blood. We might as well own it.


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