It’s hard to know which is viewed more intently in Venezuela: President Maduro’s annual address to the nation in January, or the annual Miss Venezuela pageant in September, broadcast in over 20 countries. Then there are the other, international pageants to consider: Miss Universe (which Venezuela has won seven times), Miss World (six), Miss International (seven), and something called Miss Earth (twice). More Venezuelans watch the Miss Universe contest than they do the World Cup (though they’ve always been big on baseball anyway). The 6.2 million U.S. viewers who watched the pageant in December 2015, where Steve Harvey mistakenly crowned Colombia’s Ariadna Gutiérrez the most beautiful woman in the known universe for a few glimmering moments, is chump change compared to the 50 million Venezuelans glued to their sets every year.
Ask a typical caraqueño and he’ll tell you — beauty is political. Ask Professor Nahirana Zambrano at the University of the Andes and she’ll tell you how it became so, at least in her little corner of South America. As she explains in To Be a Miss, a 2016 documentary now streaming on Netflix:
Our first experiment with democracy, funnily enough, was a beauty contest. And this took place in the 1940s. We had an international baseball series in Caracas, and there was an election to decided who would be the beauty queen for the baseball event. Two contestants participated. One of them, Oly Clemente, was from the upper classes, and Yolanda Leal, who was from the lower classes. And even though [Clemente] was advertised as the contestant for the decent people, the other girl, the girl with the humble origin, won.
The people in the end elected her as the queen of the people. This happened during the time of the dictatorship [of Isaías Medina Angarita]. So if you think about how a beauty contest was the first exercise of democracy, then you realize how important it has been.
Misses were crowned year after year even as Venezuelans suffered through military dictatorships, an oil crisis in the early seventies, economic depression in the eighties and U.S.-imposed neoliberalism and austerity in the nineties. Rioting in the capital in February 1989 left hundreds dead and the president was impeached for corruption in 1993, and yet the Miss Venezuela pageant simply kept calm and carried on. Beauty pageantry even crossed over into the realm of political pageantry when Irene Sáez, the former Miss Universe who went on to become mayor of Chacao and governor of Nueva Esparta, began her bid for La Casona in 1998 as the powerfully backed frontrunner, eventually losing to a 44-year-old major with a few socialistic ideas. “Chávez came to power with promises for changing the country — radically changing the country,” Professor Zambrano explains. “But even though he has done that, it has been very difficult to separate himself from the Misses.” Cut to a scene of Chávez awkwardly welcoming Ivian Sarcos, the 2011 Miss World, at the Palacio de Miraflores and then taking in its painting of Bolívar mounted majestically atop his snow-white steed Palomo.
Venezuela won back-to-back Miss Universe titles in 2008 and 2009, making the pageants even more popular among viewers, as well as opening the floodgates to a surge of girls and young women with dreams of becoming a Miss. Then the global economy plunged into crisis, sending the price of Venezuelan oil plummeting. With the treasury drying up, the government in Caracas found it increasingly difficult to cover the costs of its wide social safety net — Misión Barrio Adentro, Misión Hábitat, Misión Mercal, Misión Robinson — which had cut the rates of poverty and extreme poverty nearly in half by providing health care, food and housing. Then in March 2013 cancer did to Chávez what more than a few people in Washington had been wanting to do to Chávez, and Venezuela has more or less been at war with itself since. And yet, the pageants continue.
It’s no mystery why beauty pageants, cosmetics and plastic surgery are booming industries not only in Venezuela but wherever concealer and rhinoplasties are sold. “We’re watching this as if it were a part of our identity when it’s really a discourse that’s been sold to us by the media,” says Professor Jessie Blanco of the Central University of Venezuela:
We need to understand this as part of a capitalist economy in which women’s bodies are just another commodity. So Miss Venezuela is just another product. …
We have a Venezuelan society with a pageant full of beautiful women exported internationally. First of all, why are we producing beautiful women — why and for whom? Secondly, where is the visibility for the problems that Venezuelan women face which aren’t so exportable?
As the film states, domestic violence claimed the lives of more than 500 women in Venezuela in 2011, and the country has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in South America — all of which is made known in between images of little girls and tweens strutting across the stage in outfits that Sofía Vergara would be too embarrassed to wear to the Golden Globes. One of the aspirants, 25-year-old Mirla Guillen, auditions for a talent scout who then pimps her out to a wealthy man willing to pay for the surgeries she’s told she needs in order to be competitive. After one prospective sponsor asks that the cameras leave the room while the mics are still recording, we hear the shameless maquereau assure the man that Mirla is single and “will behave.” Dinner between the two is arranged for that same night, but at the end of the film Mirla, looking more dejected than ever, tells us that the glorified john later reneged on his promise to pay.
“This makes me sad for women everywhere” was my wife’s main comment on the film, and I’m glad she didn’t miss the point about the Misses. Even though this is a documentary starring Venezuela, what’s happening to women in the Orinoquía is also happening to them throughout Latin America, North America, Europe, and even in Muslim societies — everywhere that women’s bodies are little more than the physical representation of sexual desire. Corporations and ad agencies rely appropriate sexual desire and attention it to whatever commodity they’re trying to sell, so that when I see a bikini-clad young woman biting into a juicy burger, my desire for the girl becomes a craving for the burger too.
And that’s not the only way media skews reality. A lot of young women of color are trying to keep up with the Kardashians and “real” housewives while their male counterparts rap along to lyrics gloating about jewelry, clothes, cribs, cars and cash. Through TV and music the audience gets to live in a world completely unlike their own. Most people defend their viewing and listening habits as a benign form of escapism, just one more way to unwind after yet another rough day in an already daunting life. That indeed may be the case, but there’s also a lot of distraction involved. Like the couple in Inception, they shun the real world and retreat into fantasy. They’re happy there, if not happy here. Meanwhile the problems of the real world only inflame.
Featured image: Serge/Flickr