Beauty with a purpose: the mantra of the Miss World competition – its excuse for putting sexism on parade. The winning woman, you see, gets to go on a world tour raising money for charity. So, the competition is not, therefore, about objectifying women, it's not a cattle market, it is about lifting a lovely lady from obscurity to spend a year touring the world being seen and raising funds for good causes.
But the defenders of the Miss World competition aren’t particularly interested in the ‘beauty with a purpose’ cover, their stake in the argument isn’t much interested in the aspiring Miss Worlds either. This is a pageant of purposeful vacuity - its silliness and its ‘Sunday Palladium’ kitsch are all part of its armour. It’s a game to tax the fortitude of the eternally entertaining Terry Wogan or Bruce Forsyth.
No, the defenders’ interest is in another agenda: it’s right on to be right off. It relies on the notion that Miss World isn’t an issue because the critique of it is no longer an issue: feminism is a thing of the past, ergo sexism is a thing of the past.
The great feminist theorist of popular culture and advertising, Judith Williamson, reminds us that kitsch is a weapon in the propaganda value of retro-sexism, it flourishes in a frame of period style, and the style implies that it is a knowing design: this is sexism with an alibi. It throws the pageant into an another era – before feminism came along and spoiled the fun. Kitsch is the key to its transcendence – it slithers between eras, between pre and post-feminism. It invites the thought that feminism never happened.
It is a knowing escape from the enlightenment, from that moment when smutty Bob Hope, a maestro of old men’s double entendre and a regular host of the show, was on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and a posse from the Women’s Liberation Movement assailed him with flour bombs and tomatoes.
It has been bothered by controversy ever since – it finally left British television screens at the end of the decade, and departed these shores, too, holing up wherever it reckoned it would be free of hassle. It has rarely been free of hassle however, and it shiftily moves across continents and frontiers to wherever it is hoped the collective consciousness isn’t yet on the side of women. It is Miss World’s bad luck to find itself in a world where feminism is (despite the demise of its organisational form) is an unfinished revolution and religious fundamentalism is a global counter-revolution.
Wherever it wanders, Miss World is always in an argument and it has to steer a course between the sway of politics. Its history before the Women’s Liberation protest is instructive – its founder Eric Morley, the boss of the entertainment empire Mecca, first fielded women wearing bikinis at the end of the 1950s: those were the days when the beauty business functioned rather like boxing – a way out and up for those whose class and gender didn’t offer many alternatives.
But it was also in a sense sexually ‘explicit’, it was intended to deliver as much flesh and titillation as British television would tolerate. This was as near as British television could get to the centrefold girl - that was, and is, the point of Miss World. And that is why Miss World deserves our protest: the competition is a knowing and conservative intervention in sexual politics, it has never been innocent.