Daniel W. Drezner

What Does Miss Universe 2013 Tell Us About World Politics in 2013?

If you look past the fundamentals, Russia has had a pretty good few months on the world stage.  More recently, Forbes, in a surprising move that demonstrates yet again that no one at that magazine has a f**king clue about world politics, labeled Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world. Tomorrow is the cherry ...

If you look past the fundamentals, Russia has had a pretty good few months on the world stage.  More recently, Forbes, in a surprising move that demonstrates yet again that no one at that magazine has a f**king clue about world politics, labeled Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world.

Tomorrow is the cherry on top of the sundae — Moscow will be hosting the Miss Universe 2013 competition.  It is, literally, a crowning moment for Russia’s leaders.

Or is it?  One of the themes of this blog is that you can find interesting politics and good political science topics anywhere — you just need to look properly.  So it is with the Miss Universe competition.  Sure, it’s a topic ripe for cheap West Wing jokes and Saturday Night Live skits, but is it something more than that?  To get a better grip on the politics of global beauty pageants, I asked the most qualified person on Earth to write the definitive guest post on this topic. 

[Really?  The most qualified person on Earth?  REALLY?!–ed.] Jessica Trisko Darden holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from McGill University and a M.A. in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.  She is currently a Faculty Fellow with the School of International Service at American University. Oh, and she was also the Miss Earth 2007 international titleholder.  [Um… oh… Ok then!–ed.]

High Heels Meets High Politics: Russia and Miss Universe 2013

Jessica Trisko Darden

Is Russia’s hosting of Miss Universe more than just pageantry? As a former Miss and a scholar of International Relations, I know first-hand that international pageants are as political as they are entertaining. From strict security and protests to the formation of regional blocs, international pageants are as tense as a G-20 summit, with cross-cultural miscommunication, behind the scenes diplomacy, and deal making. When 86 women walk across a stage in Moscow on November 9th, they won’t just be participating in a beauty competition – it will be an international political event.

In many ways, the Miss Universe pageant functions like any major international organization (IO). The decision-making process is opaque, often contested, and in many ways reflect the underlying power relations and interests of the dominant countries.

Similar to most other IO’s, the United States dominates. The pageant is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC, and Miss USA has won 8 times in 61 years (13 times if the 5 wins by the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico are included). Miss Universe also has the formal structure of an IO. Countries send delegates, in this case women between the ages of 18 and 26, who convene annually. Participating countries bid to host the event in spite of the relatively high cost.

The delegates have specific diplomatic functions, including literally embodying their culture through the national costume competition.  For many of these women, it will be the first and perhaps only opportunity they will have to represent their country on the world stage, though some may go on to hold political office after hanging up their tiaras (Eunice Olsen, Irene Sáez and Angelina Sondakh, among others). However, Miss Universe, while reflecting international norms of fair competition and equal representation, arguably globalizes specifically American values, including a Barbie-like model of beauty.

As with any major international conference, the host nation benefits by harnessing international attention for its own objectives. The world press arrives. Tourism ads are aired in the 190 countries where the pageant is broadcast, generating revenue for the host. A successful pageant may also convince the international media of the ability of the host to safely pull off a large event. This is surely part of the rationale for Russia hosting Miss Universe for the first time, three months in advance of the Sochi Olympics.

There is a potential downside to all this international attention. On stage at Miss Universe 2013 are not only stunning evening gowns but also the present state of Russia’s foreign relations laid bare. Notably absent from this year’s roster are Albania, Kosovo and Georgia.

The Russian Federation does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state and could not issue a visa to Miss Kosovo. Miss Albania withdrew from the competition as a sign of political solidarity between the ethnic compatriots. Even more controversially, the Miss Georgia organization is not participating because of the country’s strained foreign relations with Russia. Georgia severed diplomatic relations during the 2008 conflict between the two countries and later withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an IO formed amongst several Soviet successor states. Georgia’s President-elect, Giorgi Margvelashvili, recently announced that his country has no intention of rejoining the CIS in spite of overtures by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. This year, then, the pageant has provided a venue for the dark side of Russia’s "soft power" – the ability to exclude, marginalize, and ignore.

As with the contestants, the spotlight on the host is not always kind. Advocates concerned with recent xenophobic attacks and anti-LGBT legislation in Russia may use the Miss Universe competition as a potential platform. One of the American hosts has publicly withdrawn over concerns about treatment based on his sexual orientation, adding further to the growing calls for a boycott of Sochi in support of gay rights. In addition, pageant pundits have commented on the fact that a pageant-associated fashion show failed to include any African delegates. This follows on the heels of complaints of racist chanting towards black players by Russian soccer fans.

The pageant may also bring attention to disparities between ordinary Russians and the country’s elite. Tickets for the event range in price from $80 to $2,000. With an average Russian disposable household income of $1,275 a month, only Russia’s super-elite is likely to be on display in the front rows.

Domestic political developments in other countries will also be on stage in Moscow. While the landmark participation of Miss Myanmar, the California-educated Moe Set Wine, may not have been what advocates of Burma’s liberalization had in mind, it certainly reflects the country’s growing embrace of globalization. The fact that Miss Israel is of Ethiopian heritage also signals to the world a different image of that country; the first black Miss Israel had the opportunity to meet with America’s first black president during Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in March.  

Bikinis and big hair aside, attention to cultural events such as Miss Universe teaches us that high politics pervades all aspects of social life. The pageant is inherently political.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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