As evidenced on television, in print ads, and in beauty pageants the world over, beauty is rarely envisaged as dark-skinned or morphologically diverse, rather, beauty requires acquiescence to an assembly-line sameness. Typically, the whiter the teeth, the thinner the frame, the straighter and longer the hair, the ligher the skin, the more likely one is to be defined as beautiful.
The surgical-makeover showThe Swan made this homogeneous beauty imperative particular apparent. Suggesting that ethnic markers had to be excised in order to attain Swan status, the show’s surgeons cropped the noses and laser-zapped the ‘hairy’ bodies of its non-Caucasian contestants. More worryingly, one of these contestants, an immigrant from Ecuador, was presented as enacting the American Dream via her surgically modified performance. When her transformation was revealed, she enthused “I came for a dream. An American Dream. And I got it.” Here, by equating the surgical erasure of racial features with the American Dream, the show implicitly suggested that American beauty is defined by the absence of racial or ethnic markers.
Further, in season two, the first and only black contestant was transformed into a white approximation of beauty, with long straightened hair and a ‘de-ethnicized’ nose. While the show avoided racially normalizing procedures such as “upper lid Westernization,” it nevertheless sent the message that making bodies more beautiful involves making them more white.
As the lineup of contestants in the Swan finale revealed, public performances of beauty require long, straight, lightened hair, cropped noses, smooth hairless features, ultra white smiles, and bodies chiseled close to the bone. These finales, via their display of a cartoonish exaggeration of white, able-bodied, heterosexual beauty, encapsulated the show’s message that being beautiful entails the erasure of difference in favor of an excessive performance of the same.
In a seeming echo of the infamous racialized history of the Miss America pageant, The Swan thus upheld Caucasian skin and hair as ideal. Noting that the infamous first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, had to “pass for white” to win, theorist Sarah Banet-Weiser links Williams’ demise to both race and sexuality. Arguing the nude photos of Williams and another woman disrupted the regulated moral boundary of femininity and the institutionalized framework of heterosexuality that defines the Miss America pageant, Banet-Weiser contends that Williams’ downfall was fueled by homophobia. Here, suggesting the heteronormative and racialized aspects of traditional beauty pageants, Banet-Weiser’s work reveals the “complicated cultural work” pageants perform in relation to beauty, femininity, nationhood, class, race, and sexuality.
As Sarah Banet-Weiser’s work on beauty pageants reveals, such contests have long presented so-called beautiful women as liberal citizens enacting democracy and self-agency via their beauty. The Miss America crown, for example, is codified as available for all, just like the ‘American Dream.’ Emphasizing equal opportunity and liberal ideology, beauty pageants thus negotiate conceptions of citizenship, proffering the idea that the ‘true citizen’ is also a beautiful citizen.
But the utopic fantasies currently being disseminated via television are, as the title of the show The Swan suggested, problematically based on a fairy tale narrative. The shows do not in fact offer any sort of improved democracy, let alone widen the definition of who can become a valuable or valued citizen. Rather, they, and their more recent descendents, trade in the message that beauty, done ‘right,’ is white.