For the Love of Pageants: Gender, Sex, Colonialism
By May Farrales, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia
Why do Filipinos love pageants?
I did not watch beauty pageants when I was growing up. I did not even watch the Miss Universe Pageant this year and only started following it to see how the news of the Pia Wurtzbach debacle would unfold. Until two years ago, I had never been to a Flores de Mayo celebration to watch a Santa Cruzan procession. Until two years ago, I had never been to a beauty pageant held in a school gym or church basement put on by one of the many local Filipino organizations in our community. My parents are from the Philippines but I grew up here in Vancouver (the unceded territory of the Musqueam people). And up until recenlty, I never wondered why Filipinos love pageants.
It was this question, among others, that drew me to visit local school gyms, church basements, parks, parking lots and community halls to witness the spectacle of pageants for my research project.
From the religious processions I visited to the pageants put on to celebrate regions and provinces in the Philippines, Filipino women hold centre stage. They are celebrated and the gatherings are organized to feature the beauty of Filipino women. As one pageant coordinator explained to me, this beauty, while including attractive physical features, encompasses the very notion of what it means to be a Filipino woman: “Here you look at […] what you represent […] I feel like an ideal Filipina should be smart, okay. You’re not cheap, you’re smart, you’re respectable, and you have good bearing.”
Beauty then is more than what the eye meets and sees, but it means something because of what it represents. And what it represents is what a Filipina should aspire to be. What I’m suggesting here (as others before me have) is that beauty is not something natural, already-and-always knowable, but that it is a category and way of being that is constructed. We are taught and we learn what is desirable and what is not by the social and cultural standards that make us. We are taught and we learn what it means to be a Filipino and a woman by the social and cultural standards that make us. So, where do these social and cultural standards come from? How do they work? And why should we care about them?
The standards of beauty and the Filipino woman are very much wrapped up in the Philippines’ colonial histories. I think it’s safe to assume that this is not new information for many of us. We are keenly aware that lighter-skin, sharper features and some measure of height are imprints of beauty standards left on the Philippines by Spanish and American colonization.
Denise Cruz (http://philippi.mywhc.ca/canada/why-do-filipinos-love-pageants/)has written a book about how our fascination with Maria Clara as a figure and a measuring stick for the ideal Filipina has changed over time and in contact with different Western imperial ventures in the Philippines. Not only are there gendered-expectations associated with Maria Clara (ideas of what a desirable Filipina should do and be like at home and in public) but there are also expectations of what forms of desirability or sexuality she should convey.
I think it’s safe to assume that this also is not new information for many of us. Her femininity makes her desirable and sexually-attractive in the colonial standards that continue to influence the ways we see and treat each other. It was colonial projects in the Philippines that brought us the very categories of man and woman, of the masculine and the feminine, and organized our ways of thinking based on these two categories. We now take these two categories as given, as normal, and as necessary in our daily lives.
We organize our families, daily activities, and our community organizations and events around these two categories. The Canadian state even organizes our migration from the Philippines to Canada along these two gender categories where Filipina women mostly migrate to do domestic work first and then later sponsor their husbands and families. What I’m getting at here is that ideas of what beauty, gender, and sexuality are do not just drop from the sky or come to us without a history or a context. And for the Filipina, colonialism remains ever present.
There might be an urge to think that with time and distance away from the Philippines, while now here in Canada, colonial influences might begin to fade and loose shape. For certain, gender and sexual expectations look different as Filipino women have in many cases become the primary breadwinner in families and Filipino girls are growing up in a very different environment.
I plan to write more about how our gendered expectations as Filipinos are influenced by the settler colonial conditions in which we now find ourselves in coming articles for this series. It is a colonialism that is similar in many ways to the colonialism we are familiar with in the Philippines, but it is also different in many ways because of the fact that the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples is happening right now and on the very grounds that we are living, working, and playing on.
So why do Filipinos love beauty pageants? I’m afraid I cannot answer this. I think each one of us has our own reasons (including myself) for loving and appreciating them. But what I can say with a certain degree of certainty is that beauty pageants, and our ideas of what makes a Filipina woman, didn’t just drop from the sky but are influenced by our experiences with colonialism.
(May Farrales is a Doctoral student at the University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Geography. This is the second of a series of articles she will be contributing for her research on the subject.)