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The Complex Gender Politics of the All-Female Miss Universe Committee

It smells like a nice sachet of lavender-scented progress for the lingerie drawer. But has anything really changed?

The Miss Universe pageant, airing this year on December 17th, has announced that, for the first time in six-decade history, its seven-member panel of judges will now consist of all women.

While that smells like a nice sachet of lavender-scented progress for the lingerie drawer, it’s unclear what, if anything, this could really mean for a competition that scours the galaxy for the hottest woman under 28 with long hair who has never been knocked up or married.

Will a panel of women — some of whom are former winners themselves, subjected to an unfair lifetime of shallow scrutiny — be more woke critics of superficial beauty standards and body confidence, or harsher judges of their fellow females? Let’s think this through!

In a practical sense, all the panelists should be former winners or pageant industry experts. Just as we want singing competitions to be judged by people who know how to sing or teach singing, and model competitions to be judged by scouts and models who have actually done the work, let’s get the best judges of asses and boobs on stage, pronto.

But beyond this, it’s unclear what difference any of this makes, aside from the assurance that women have chosen the best boobs and ass for the galaxy. For starters, it’s unclear why this decision to lady up the judging committee even happened, although the Miss America pageant may have something to do with it. It recently put three women in a few leadership positions, but that was because a lead writer of the show’s script Lewis Friedman and CEO Sam Haskwell jokingly referred in email to some of the former winners as cunts. Not kidding!

But that’s just America. The Universe, luckily, is a little bit more egalitarian in how it treats its women, even if its contest has no actual talent portion and requires no special skills (outside of walking and talking). The pageant certainly pretends it’s about more — “beauty, intelligence and poise” — but even a former judge admitted it’s really about “beauty, beauty, beauty.”

In reality, contestants are judged solely on swimsuit, evening gown and communication skills, or what you might re-categorize as clothed body walking, less-clothed body walking, and mouth-to-word formation. And that remains the fundamental barrier to advancing the pageant’s purpose as anything beyond, well, body-mouth appeal.

Yes, it’s the lowest-possible hanging fruit reachable to mock beauty pageants for their hopelessly retrograde standards. To exist at all is really the problem, and there is really no possible way to turn a contest requiring butt glue into something dignified, no matter how much you enthuse about women’s potential as ambassadors to the world. Is the world suffering from a beauty shortage?

Adding a little faux feminism to a deeply sexist enterprise reminds me of what my grandmother used to comment sarcastically when watching teenage-me drown my coffee in half and half: “I guess you like a little bit of coffee in your milk.”

That’s not really coffee, and this isn’t really about empowering women. After all, there’s only one winner, so its not as if the competition sends hundreds of thousands of slightly less attractive beauties toward pursuing higher education, like a G.I. Bill for ladies (though it should).

So if the contestants continue to be thin, young women who have not married or bred, and who meet all traditional beauty standards for facial and bodily symmetry, weight, height and proportions, down to the shiny long pony mane — as they have been since its inception in the 1950s — what’s the difference in who’s doing the judging?

It’s not as if they’ve become more inclusive about the bodies. If anything, the winners have gotten taller and thinner over the years. And being that good-looking takes a lot of work, money and free time. It’s no coincidence that many of the contestants don’t have a degree beyond high school, or pursue a higher degree post-competition.

That leaves us with only one question: Is there anything about how women would judge other women on looks alone that could elevate or improve this otherwise misogynistic contest?

Women do judge other women differently than men do. Because women know how the sausage of beauty gets made: The abstinence of rich, pleasurable foods, the pain of minimizing the body weight, the endless demands of pampering the skin, staying out of the sun, working out, standing up straight. All female beauty is really a game of denying pleasure and enforcing a strict regiment of pain.

Broadly speaking — all exceptions noted and recognized — women see all this nuance in the result of what we’d call beautiful, whereas men tend to only see the final picture. Women judge women on the details. Because of this, I’d argue women can make much finer distinctions. Women judge other women on — or rather, hold the highest praise for — beauty rather than sex appeal, because we see the raw materials. In essence, every woman could be an America’s Next Top Model judge: We know when she’s a runway model or a Miller Lite girl and never the twain shall be confused.

That’s not necessarily harsher; it’s just more specific and on a different spectrum. Women are far more likely to see beauty in places many men won’t: In androgyny, in makeup-free, in the art of fashion even when nothing about the fashion makes one sexy to a man, per se. Women get why other women might wear lime green drop-crotch utility pants because they look baller, knowing men will find them repulsive, and women will still call that beautiful. They can better see what beauty is because wanting to fuck it doesn’t get in the way.

Women judge each other harshly not because they’re petty and shallow, but because all women are judged harshly by society and often feel pitted against each other as a result. In that sense, all women can feel forced into a competition to be the prettiest woman in the room, the fairest of them all, the Miss Universe of her small corner of the galaxy. Many women actively work against such thinking and practices, but that’s a drop in the bucket when the real pageant plays out on billboards and big screens, in every day life.

At best here we can merely expand the definition of beauty without ever tossing it out completely. Including trans women, as the pageant did in 2012 (this year’s Angela Ponce will compete representing Spain), is one way toward that end. Ashley Graham’s involvement is another. The “body positivity” model will return to the proceedings as a behind-the-scenes presence for the pageant. But she’s not competing. And also both instances still include women who meet heteronormative beauty standards:

Beyond this, it would take far more orchestrated disruption, a little more bitter coffee in this milk. That happened recently when Miss Peru’s Miss Universe pageant contestants chose to use their mouth-to-word portion to recite statistics about gender violence against women.

Otherwise, we are merely paying beautiful lip service to the idea that women count for more than their ability to swimsuit up. Miss America tried to up the stakes earlier this year when, post–“cunt” scandal, they eliminated the swimsuit competition and evening gown portions of the contest, insisting that they are no longer a beauty pageant but now merely a competition.

The viewership next year will prove whether the issue is the pageant, or us. Because left to nothing but a test of — what, exactly? — it’s hard to imagine anyone tuning in unless they simply didn’t get the memo. Also, no matter how egregious the pageants are, they’re still largely irrelevant.

But that’s why the boldest move of all would be getting rid of not portions of the competition, but the entire competition. They need to take one for team universe and fall on their well-heeled, bedazzled sword. To be honest, that’s probably what Miss America just did whether it realizes it or not. Your move, Miss Universe.