Girls on film: why cinema loves the beauty pageant

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Beauty contests on screen can be fun, frivolous … and disturbing. Here are 5 films that take you behind the catwalk. Contains some spoilers.

The problem with beauty contests

At its peak, the Miss World beauty pageant was watched by millions in the UK. Not anymore. The concept – women competing in swimsuits – may have moved to reality TV shows such as Love Island, but there’s less interest in bona fide beauty contests.

That isn’t to say pageant culture isn’t popular elsewhere – Miss World, Miss Universe, and various child-based spin-offs are all still in business. It’s just that the rest of us have changed.

There’s much more unease now about judging people on their looks, and the moral ambiguities of enforcing non-diverse beauty ideals. Most pageants almost exclusively judge women. And that’s a problem.

Pageants reward a certain look and attitudes over broader achievements and personal triumph. They celebrate women, but only when they adhere to (outdated) gender limits. The Miss World contest doesn’t admit mothers, for instance, while those who fail its moral and sexual standards have previously been stripped of their titles.

The swimsuit remains a sticking point, along with other ways of displaying the female body for visual consumption. Look past the rituals, and the voyeurism and vanity of such contests seems surreal – if not downright odd.

It’s not controversial to conclude beauty contests reward women for standing still – literally and metaphorically – rather than standing out.

5 films about beauty contests

The baked-in conflict and controversy make pageants a fertile backdrop for cinema storytelling.

Beauty contests represent struggle – to be crowned winner – which is the starting point of almost all stories. And their obsession with uniformity (lack of diversity) makes them an ideal stage to explore themes such as class, money, gender, privilege and race.

Misbehaviour (March 2020)

Misbehaviour (pictured) hasn’t been released at the time of writing, but what we know is that it’s based on a true story.

The film revisits an attempt by the Women’s Liberation Movement to disrupt the 1970 Miss World contest in London, England. [Here’s footage of the events that inspired the movie.]

“It seems incredible that [Miss World] was on TV … It really was a cattle market.”

Protester Sue Finch, talking to the Guardian newspaper in 2019

Misbehaviour sets out its stall early, with Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley intent on destroying this spectacle of women’s oppression. However, later they discover oppression can be other side of opportunity, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Miss Grenada claiming a watershed moment for diversity.

It was at the 1970 contest that Jennifer Hosten (Miss Grenada) became the first ever black winner of Miss World. She later described the experience as a revelation about race and racism, with the UK press openly discriminatory towards the black contestants.

Beauty pageants are a tricky truth to reveal. Whether it’s friend or foe to the women and girls who participate is hard to say. Sometimes it’s both.

Carry On Girls (1973)

Misbehaviour isn’t the first film inspired by the 1970 Miss World protest. Somewhat unbelievably, the Carry On franchise got there first.

As with other films in this notably bawdy series, Carry On Girls is a vehicle for slapstick and titillation. In this outing, a British seaside town (…where else?) holds a beauty contest, only to be upstaged by an angry mob of dowdy housewives. Here, the struggle pits sexual permissiveness against age, tradition and ‘frumpiness’, and is played for grotesque laughs.

To be fair, all the characters are fair game for ridicule: even the clueless mayor loses his pants. The pageant finale, however, is a whole other level of awkward. Thanks to itching powder and washing-up liquid, the beauty contest becomes a freak show of bikini-clad women scratching, sneezing and convulsing their way across the stage (while the audience points and laughs).

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

“Grandpa … Am I pretty?”

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

Little Miss Sunshine – a glorious celebration of quirkiness – similarly treads the line between beauty pageant and farce. Here, 7-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is the pot-bellied misfit who dreams of winning a junior beauty contest.

Pageants are all about rules and insider knowledge. Similarly, Little Miss Sunshine explores the arbitrary rules imposed on little girls, and the duality (and hypocrisy) that involves.

The film ends with Olive performing a routine that gets her banned from the contest. The ruling doesn’t make sense, because Olive’s adult dancing isn’t markedly different to the way the other girls mimic grown-up women (i.e., in their hairstyles, tans, dresses, make-up and behaviour).

For Olive, who anyway doesn’t fit into this plastic Barbie world, this is the risk of ‘being yourself’. In real life, you don’t always win friends and influence people by being an individual – not when social success often depends on conformity.

Olive’s family doesn’t fit in, either. The joy of the film, however, is that the family make a refuge for themselves through solidarity and acceptance – and by not giving a hoot about made-up rules.

Miss Firecracker (1989)

Rules – real and imagined – are central to Miss Firecracker, based on Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Carnelle Scott (Holly Hunter) has grown-up in thrall to a cousin’s beauty pageant success. Carnelle enters the same contest as a way to connect with the past and reinvent herself – it’s a rite of passage (Olive Hoover’s pageant ambitions similarly shadow the journey into puberty).

Albeit older than Olive, Carnelle is another misfit. She’s not graceful or charming, and isn’t flawless on stage. Bound to the fragile self-esteem she learned as a child, Carnelle is set on a disastrous dream.

Similarly, Carnelle’s cousin Elain (Mary Steenburger) fixates on her own childhood success. Each tries to preserve the roles they had back then, unable to see that – like a winner’s sash – such notions are transient, and can be taken off anytime they like.

The beauty contest stands for tradition and a disappearing world (one built on racial and social hierarchies), and in doing what looks good in the eyes of others. Unsurprisingly, it’s a prescriptive place to be. And yet, by trying to walk the line and failing, Carnelle is able to carve out a path of her own.

Identity isn’t a crown that others give you, but something you can decide for yourself. In that, Carnelle achieves the kind of agency and free will untenable in the rule-based pageant universe.

Miss Congeniality (2000)

“Describe your perfect date.”
“… I’d have to say April 25th …”

Miss CONGENIALITY

Miss Congeniality is part pageant movie, part makeover flick.

Sandra Bullock’s undercover FBI agent Grace Hart is an emotionally bruised tomboy who chews with her mouth open and brings down bad guys. When she enters the Miss United States pageant to catch a terrorist, she has to learn how to be a woman. That is, she actually takes classes … from a man, no less.

As a beauty queen, clueless Hart is a Bullock in a china shop. Meanwhile, her fellow contestants are dumb but willing prisoners in an open jail, one that dictates what and how much they eat and drink. Of course, you could argue that this either misses or makes the point that consumer society places the same expectations on all of us, of all genders, all the time.

Miss Congeniality shows just why the beauty contest is so suited to exploring themes of difference, identity, acceptance … and prat falls. After all, a tradition built on perfection is always only ever one step away from ridicule.


Picture credit: Misbehaviour (2020), dir. Philippa Lowthorpe. Pathé Productions Ltd