Can't Miss SA just go away?
Because the profile of the Miss South Africa pageant has mercifully faded over the past decade, many of us can drift on with our lives, serenely ignoring its existence. But then it gets thrust into our line of vision again, as has been the case over the past few days.
Last week it was announced that the reigning Miss SA will not be taking part in Miss World. Current title-holder Melinda Bam has been withdrawn from the global beauty pageant by Miss SA-owners Sun International because "they felt they would be backing a losing horse", to quote a source dug up by City Press.
To back a losing horse - it's a fairly common metaphor within the sphere of games and competition, but perhaps never so apt as when applied to beauty pageants. However, we know that former Miss South Africas do not get shot like ageing race-horses. Instead, they are led to the paddock of retirement known as Top Billing.
To continue, the same anonymous source opined: "Melinda has cultivated a reputation for being a good-time, sexy girl, and Miss World is not about that". Pardon my ignorance, but I thought Miss World was exactly about that - unless we are going to pretend that Miss World is a sort of UN for hot women and the winner is crowned on the basis of her ability to responsibly wield a veto vote on the Security Council.
There are now rumours flying that Melinda Bam is either the star of a portfolio of naked pictures, or that she is pregnant. The latter possibility was rubbished by Sun International spokeswoman Sue Klerck, who pointed out with irrefutable logic that she cannot be with child because "to have sex, you must have a boyfriend, and that's against the rules of the competition". On a side note, it's strange that Klerck thinks that the only way of becoming pregnant is to have sex, given that the rest of her views seem drawn straight out of the Bible.
She did not elaborate on exactly why it is not permitted for Miss South Africa to have a boyfriend - M&G columnist Verashni Pillay hilariously suggested that perhaps she is expected to be "married to her country". Maybe they think having a supportive partner would take her focus off her sash. It's more likely, however, that she can't have a boyfriend for the same reason that she can't pose for nude photos: because she is supposed to be emblematic of virtue, chastity and virginity while also looking super do-able in a bikini.
I feel sorry for Melinda Bam, who is not stupid - she graduated cum laude from the University of Pretoria this year - and deserves not to have her "wild past" picked apart by South Africa's press. But seriously, isn't this whole episode a reminder of just how creepy the Miss South Africa pageant is?
It is absurd when the claim is made that Miss South Africa should behave in a certain way because they are "an ambassador for the nation". What qualifies these young women to go forth and represent us to the world? Personally, I would be reluctant to sign over power of attorney to any of the past winners, not because I am stereotyping them as brainless but because they are 25 years old as a maximum. I know that many 25-year-olds are wise beyond their years, but if I have to pick someone to act for me on a global stage, I'll shoot for someone a little older, thanks. Someone like Mamphela Ramphele.
The notion that Miss South Africa must serve as the moral GPS of the nation is also disingenuous to the point of offensiveness, and embedded in antiquated ideas that equate inner virtue with physical aesthetics. (This is why you never see Jesus painted as a fat dude with prominent facial moles.) If we are serious about Miss SA performing the role of South Africa's ethical compass, then surely we need to beef up the filtering system in order to end up with the most appropriate candidate?
One idea might be to tweak the questions put to candidates during the competition. Instead of asking them for their personal role model, or dreams for South Africa, why not confront them with a King Solomon-esque riddle to be solved onstage? "You have one R5 coin in your pocket and you are simultaneously approached by a disabled female car-guard and a man begging with a small child. Who gets the money, and why?"
Or: "You have been given control over South Africa's military and have received a credible threat that King Mswati is intending to invade with a fearsome nuclear armoury. Do you blitz the hell out of Mbabane, wiping out thousands of innocent civilians, or take the chance that we may fall under the iron fist of a man who will line you all up for virginity testing within five minutes?"
Actually, the last one wouldn't work, because the Miss South Africa pageant already is a kind of Reed Dance, with Sol Kerzner in Mswati's throne.
The idea that Miss South Africa becomes a "role model" merely by virtue of putting on a sash is also, frankly, bizarre. If hotness was all that qualified you to become an aspirational figure, Nonhle Thema would be a lot more in demand at school prize-givings. And please don't give me the argument that they also place a lot of weight on brains and social conscience. If that were true, then surely in the 54 years of the competition's existence, we would have ended up with at least one only average-looking winner who had nonetheless wowed the judges with her command of trigonometry or establishment of a community soup kitchen.
But this is a "beauty pageant", so their raison d'être is looks. Let's be frank about that. In the official bio of the current Miss SA on the pageant's website, we are told nothing more about Bam than the degree she is studying for and the fact that "At 1,7 metres tall, Melinda attracted the attention of the judges and the audience". The fact that Bam is actually clever, and probably quite nice, doesn't get a mention - we are asked to make her our role model on the basis of being tall. That only works in the Kingdom of Pygmies.
I acknowledge that there are young girls all over South Africa whose greatest hope is to be crowned Miss SA, and that in trivialising the pageant you are mocking their dreams. Tough. Let them get more worthy dreams. Let's also examine who is pushing them towards these dreams. Mothers, do you really want your daughters to be celebrated for nothing more than their looks? If so, it suggests that you don't have a whole heap of faith in the rest of them.
The fact that beauty pageants contribute to a damaging culture where women are objectified, and their value appraised on the basis of their looks, is a point that has been made often enough in the past. (Incidentally, the fact that a Mr SA pageant now exists does not magically make the idea of Miss SA less sexist, in the same way that affirmative action does not magically undo centuries of white oppression. The fact that women voluntarily participate in Miss SA does not make the principles on which it is based less offensive, either.)
What is particularly disturbing about the Miss South Africa pageant, however, is the way in which it is yoked to particular notions of morality and femininity - as we've seen over the past week. The pageant won't go anywhere as long as it keeps being a cash cow for Sun International. But until that glorious day when public interest fades to a point where it's no longer a money-spinner, let's just go back to ignoring it.
This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick website.