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I Was Once a Beauty Queen - review

Rachel Cooke applauds a documentary giving voice to middle-aged women.

I Was Once a Beauty Queen

Good ideas don’t always have to be tricksy. I Was Once a Beauty Queen (8 October, 9pm) did exactly what it said on the tin: its director, Hannah Berryman, talked to half a dozen former winners of Miss United Kingdom and Miss Great Britain about why they had entered the competitions, and what effect wearing the little paste crown had on the rest of their lives. Yet the result was much more than social history. The women involved, now in their fifties and sixties, turned it into a meditation, gentle and wry, on what it means to grow older. They talked about invisibility and whether they felt this as a loss or a relief, and as they did I thought what a rare thing it was that I watching. I can’t remember the last time a bunch of middle-aged women were given a whole hour of BBC screen time in which to talk thoughtfully to camera (and before you all write in, I’m excluding the repellent Grumpy Old Women on the grounds that it was the precise opposite of thoughtful).

It’s easy to sneer at beauty pageants, though why a normal-sized girl walking around in her swimsuit is any more demeaning than an under- sized one walking down a Paris catwalk, I really couldn’t say. It’s easy, too, to be snobbish about them. When Madeleine Stringer, aka Miss UK 1977, revealed that she began her pageant career by winning Miss North Shields, I thought back to my only visit to the town, to attend its Wet Fish Festival: driving rain, a huddled crowd of about 60, a pub with metal grilles on its windows, little polystyrene pots of vinegary cockles. Oh, the glamour! But people forget what women – particularly working-class women –were up against.

In the film, we saw an old clip of Miss Great Britain 1971, Carolyn Moore, being interviewed by the competition’s male compere. At the time, her dearest ambition was to be a bank manager. “A woman bank manager!” said the compere. “I didn’t know there were such things.” To battle the sexism, or to have one’s vital statistics announced over a tannoy? It’s not much of a choice, is it? A lot of women, not unreasonably, would have thought the tannoy option both less exhausting and more likely to provide them with some kind of opportunity.

Did winning improve their lives? On balance, it did. Yes, they had to cope with predatory males and, even worse, with chatting to Prince Andrew (Miss UK 1979, Carolyn Seaward, who had dinner with him at Buckingham Palace); and the tabloids could be tricky. Mostly, though, the title led to a modicum of financial freedom and to the odd adventure, whether dating a footballer, or buying a small business with their winnings. Berryman tried in vain to get them to admit they regretted entering. After all, as Tracy Dodds (Miss Great Britain 1982) noted, you can, as she did, get a degree later in life; your looks, on the other hand, won’t wait.

How did the women feel about time and its effect on their lovely faces? Ageing is, I think, harder for those who were beautiful when young (it’s bad enough for those of us who weren’t – though I should also say that all of these women still looked fantastic to me). They were phlegmatic but they gazed on photographs of their former selves as if on the Mona Lisa: the faces in the albums were familiar, but mysterious, too, as if they belonged to someone else.

It goes without saying that I don’t hanker for the beauty pageant’s heyday. But how far have we come, really? The BBC has a new sitcom, Me and Mrs Jones (Fridays, 9.30pm), starring Sarah Alexander as Gemma, a “scatty” divorcee, and it makes me want to scream and rend my garments and stand at the end of my street handing out moon cups and copies of The Second Sex. Admittedly, the men in this series – Gemma’s ex-husband, Jason (Neil Morrissey), her date, Tom (Nathaniel Parker), and her 20-something son, Alfie (Jonathan Bailey) – are all morons. But the women! My God. Kill me now. Jason’s girlfriend, Inca, is a comedy Swede. She’s training to be a beauty therapist and mostly, she’s interested in waxing, tanning and getting married. As for Gemma, she’s a mother of three who can’t even put up a clothes horse successfully. How far have we come? About two steps – or that’s how it feels to me.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture