Saturday, June 26, 2021

Book Review - Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, by Hilary Levey Friedman

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

To many, pageant programs are simply pieces of paper tossed into a rubbish can shortly after the event. But they are more than ephemera; they contain the rich details of life showing what is worthy of remembering. For example, the physical measurements listed show how women’s bodies have changed over time. Moreover, what is absent or not listed—such as college major, GPA, or professional ambition —and when that information first appears, shows when the organization and society more generally began to care about those things for women. These historical sources open a window into women’s history to help us understand changing ideas about young women’s lives.

Popular culture events, especially women’s events, have a long history of producing brochures and souvenir books. Suffrage parades put out souvenir books in the 1910s. In 1940, Miss America issued its first souvenir program book. It was glossy, like a magazine, and contained information on all the contestants, events, advertisers, judges, organizers, and volunteers. The producers had previously released a pamphlet, but it had only scheduling information and nothing on the contestants.

While it’s easy for lots of people to turn up their noses at pageants, this history was enlightening. The author pointed out so much influence and reflection between pageants and the social and cultural evolution of the United States.

Official synopsis:
Book Review - Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, by Hilary Levey Friedman
Many predicted that pageants would disappear by the 21st century. Yet they are thriving. America’s most enduring contest, Miss America, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020. Why do they persist? In Here She Is, Hilary Levey Friedman reveals the surprising ways pageants have been an empowering feminist tradition. She traces the role of pageants in many of the feminist movement’s signature achievements, including bringing women into the public sphere, helping them become leaders in business and politics, providing increased educational opportunities, and giving them a voice in the age of #MeToo.

Using her unique perspective as a NOW state president, daughter to Miss America 1970, sometimes pageant judge, and scholar, Friedman explores how pageants became so deeply embedded in American life from their origins as a P.T. Barnum spectacle at the birth of the suffrage movement, through Miss Universe’s bathing beauties to the talent- and achievement-based competitions of today. She looks at how pageantry has morphed into culture everywhere from The Bachelor and RuPaul’s Drag Race to cheer and specialized contests like those for children, Indigenous women, and contestants with disabilities. Friedman also acknowledges the damaging and unrealistic expectations pageants place on women in society and discusses the controversies, including Miss America’s ableist and racist history, Trump’s ownership of the Miss Universe Organization, and the death of child pageant-winner JonBenĂ©t Ramsey.

Presenting a more complex narrative than what’s been previously portrayed, Here She Is shows that as American women continue to evolve, so too will beauty pageants.

One thing that was obvious throughout this book was the staggering amount of research that was compiled in it. Pageants have continually reflected society and its values. Whether it was through what contestants were expected to wear, how they were expected to behave, or showing the contestants and spectators what was perceived as the most important features of those on stage. Whether the pageants were showcasing babies (and the mothers carrying them), women of many age groups, or members of different cultures celebrating what made them similar, pageants gave them all a way to take pride in their identity.

While there are many judgments about those participating in pageants (or those in charge of that decision for younger contestants), the author also explored the varied reasons contestants worked so hard to participate and potentially win their chosen pageants. Sometimes it was a tradition for the region they were from or the family they identified with, sometimes it was actually for the prizes, or even something as simple as bragging rights or the experience of participating.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. Unlike some non-fiction books, this was entertainingly told across the timeline of pageants in the US, while also exploring different types of pageants and different participants. It was also interesting to see the different paths that pageant contestants seemed more prepared for after their participation, like very visible jobs in entertainment, broadcast journalism, or politics. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in what pageants are really about, and how they have changed over time, just like the societies they reflect.

{Click here to purchase—currently FREE for Kindle Unlimited!}

Becki Bayley is a wife, mom, and problem-solver. When she can get all her ducks in a row for a few minutes, she enjoys unwinding with a book and a cocktail. Check out her summer reading views on Instagram, where she posts as PoshBecki.


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