Glitz and Grit
Who still watches Miss USA? I remember tuning in when I was younger, eager to check out the contestants’ glam evening dresses. Now, if anything, I’ll glance through pictures online of the top five. Maybe. If it’s a slow internet day.
Well, the dated, sexist, eye-roller of a pageant became suddenly culturally relevant this Sunday, in more ways than one. The winner, Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez, is a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo. Thanks to thorough research (Google search) I can tell you that black belt is the highest rank, and there are nine levels within the rank. So, Nia is about halfway through the most advanced level. She started training when she was eight, and became a certified taekwondo instructor at fifteen. This is something she’s been dedicated to for most of her life, not a hobby she picked up to stand out at pageants—which she didn’t even begin competing in until 2009. Impressive. During the interview portion of the competition, Sanchez was asked why colleges aren’t addressing the issue of sexual assault on campus. She answered,
“I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason it could be swept under the rug, because they don't want that to come out in public. More awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves . . . as a fourth-degree black belt, I learned at a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself. And I think that's something we should really implement for a lot of women.”
Sanchez did three things here: called out colleges for sweeping assault under the rug, reiterated the importance of raising awareness of sexual assault on college campuses, and encouraged women to learn self-defense. She’s getting some flak for that last point, and I’d like to talk about why.
Sanchez is an advocate of self-defense. It’s what she does. She began taekwondo in the first place because she lived with her mother at a women’s shelter as a child, and viewed it as a means of protecting herself in an uncertain environment. Sanchez also practices what she preaches: she volunteers at a shelter teaching women and girls to defend themselves. Her call for women to “learn how to protect themselves” has offended those who suggest that, hey, rather than forcing women to learn self-defense, how about just teaching men not to assault women? It’s a valid point, one I won’t argue against. But here’s the thing: we don’t live in that world. It’s a nice thought, but it isn’t our reality.
Yes, of course men need to learn not to rape. We’re working on that, and we need to work a lot harder, and this is obvious to me. But for now, at a time when most women don’t feel safe walking in dark alleys alone, why not encourage them to learn self-defense? Yes, I would have rather that Sanchez said, “Men need to learn not to sexually assault women, and in turn women need to learn self-defense to be able to operate with confidence in our less-than perfect world.” But I don’t expect my words to come out of Nia Sanchez’s mouth, and I don’t think it’s realistic to demand a woman competing in a beauty pageant that includes being judged on her appearance in a bikini to flawlessly voice a feminist worldview. Miss USA stood onstage in an evening gown and gave young women permission to be physically strong and claim agency. This is progress, period.
Next, we come to Valerie Gatto, Miss Pennsylvania. Valerie made it to the top twenty, and has been outspoken in identifying herself as “a product of rape”—her 19-year-old mother was attacked at knifepoint by a stranger and raped behind a building. She says, “I hope to show others how to be proactive, what to do, to be present, to be aware of your surroundings, little things like that.” On her Facebook page, Gatto wrote, “If you know me, you know that I have always been vocal about my story and an advocate for sexual assault and rape. Now, to see everything unfold to the world, it is fulfilling and life changing.” If you think it’s brave to speak out about a history that many still find shameful, imagine doing it as a beauty queen. Gatto is throwing off a history of projecting perfection—physical and otherwise—to tell her story and use it to shake off the stigma surrounding rape and rape survivors.
Unlike Miss America, Miss USA doesn’t try to pass itself off as a “Scholarship Competition” or a talent-based contest. It’s strictly a beauty pageant. Boobs, hair, and smiles feature more prominently than anything else these women may or may not have to offer. This pageant is owned and operated by DONALD TRUMP. This makes it even more remarkable that two contestants this year vocally promoted self-defense, openly spoke about sexual assault, and encouraged women to be proactive and confident.
In 1975, anti-rape activist Susan Brownmiller advocated that women learn self-defense. Attitudes toward sexual assault have changed since the 1970’s (thankfully—when Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will was published, the idea that rape was a serious crime was revolutionary), and I’m not suggesting that Brownmiller is necessarily correct about the need for women to be constantly on guard against potential male attackers. What I AM suggesting is that beauty pageant contestants getting on stage and talking about rape and encouraging girls to take action is a big deal, and a sign that we are becoming more open about a formerly taboo subject and more willing to share stories of trauma.
How to cite this page
Metal, Tara. "Glitz and Grit." 10 June 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/glitz-and-grit>.