In further pageant news, according to a New York Times article, the French Senate has passed legislation that would ban beauty pageants for girls younger than 16 years old. The ban was folded into larger legislation aimed at promoting gender equality, which now moves to the National Assembly for further discussion and a vote.
The argument is that beauty pageants are part of a culture that hyper-sexualizes girls at increasingly young ages:
“It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful,” Chantal Jouanno, the ban’s champion, said Wednesday. “We are fighting to say: What counts is what they have in their brains.” (NYT)
In banning the pageants, the government is moving to build on public outrage over a 2011 incident “over a photo display in Paris Vogue that featured under-age girls in sexy clothes and postures, with high heels, makeup and painted fingernails. The episode drew attention to the increasing use of very young girls in fashion photography and advertisements.” (NYT)
Opponents of the ban think the penalties–up to two years in prison and a $40,000 fine for “helping, encouraging, or tolerating” a child’s participation in the contests–are too severe. They further assert that they aren’t corrupting girls and that many of the pageants, which look nothing like Toddlers & Tiaras and are age-appropriate, teach girls poise, stage presence, and to overcome fears.
I have a couple of thoughts on this. On one hand, I think it’s great that France is taking seriously how girls are inculcated in a system that values their bodies over their brains and is trying to amend that problem. I also think that it’s important that they are taking seriously the implications of trends that hypersexualize children because 1) children can’t consent 2) it has damaging results for self-esteem and internalized sexism and 3) it can be sinister.
I also think that it says something serious if they’re looking at the U.S. and saying “We do not want to be like that.” The NYT article states, “France has no equivalent of American reality shows like ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ and its spinoff, ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,’ that feature very young contestants. Still, the intense focus on beauty here, combined with a surge of images of sexualized, prepubescent girls, has raised fears that the pageants could take on the over-the-top quality of American contests.” Granted, Toddlers & Tiaras is not what I would call a fair portrait of girlhood in the U.S., but if that’s something that people elsewhere in the world are coming to associate with us, I’m not okay with that.
On the other hand, I think this legislation could fall into what I call “save the girls!” rhetoric that aims to protect girls in a way that ultimately constructs them as fragile, volatile, or in need of rescue. Often “save the girls!” campaigns focus on saving girls from sexuality in a way that isn’t sex-positive, aiming to give girls the agency to choose when and how they are sexy, but instead paints female sexuality as across-the-board dangerous. Granted, we’re talking about children, but if the logic is that you don’t want them in pageants because it over-sexualizes them, by the same logic, banning the pageants could teach them early on that owning their sexuality is not good. In a way it’s another move to police the way girls act publicly, just instilling different values. And do bans like these work anyway?
I’m not saying that I think beauty pageants are a feminist space–I think there’s something really superficial and wrong about a set-up that judges women based on their attractiveness. Plus, there’s class issues and race issues and on and on. But, on the other hand, banning them doesn’t necessarily change the culture. Girls are still sexualized and evaluated by their looks in other hetero-normative ways in other contexts. Banning pageants could be eliminating a space which some girls find empowering for gaining poise and yadda yadda, as the proponents claim. Or, if banning the pageants is a step in the right direction, it can’t be the only step. There has to be more done to actually teach girls about body confidence, sex-positivity, and self-worth that stems from the good stuff within them.
What do you think?