In Monday night's Wonderland I Was Once a Beauty Queen Hannah Berryman interviewed former beauty queens from the days when the BBC still broadcast the pageants. 30 years has passed since such pageants were broadcast with a straight face. Now child beauty pageants are presented as freak shows of pushy moms and lacquered brats. Poise and a lovely laugh can go do one, tantruming toddlers in tiaras is where it's at now in the world of pageantry.
These women were articulate, reflective and measured (both physically har- har, “Those measurements you see there are 37-35-37; she measures the same, exactly, upside down.” and in their delivery of recollections). There was a sense with some of these former beauty queens that Berryman's interview provided a kind of release. Although not one of them seemed to believe their pageant past was something to be ashamed of. And you know what? They're right. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be the cheesy hosts.
From a couple of reviews I've read this is not the correct reaction. From me or these women. In Sam Wollaston's Guardian review he almost berates the interviewees: “Hannah Berryman does her best; she asks questions about whether they think it was degrading, or dangerous, or they were being objectified, tries to get them at least to engage with why those feminists, or whatever they called themselves, where hurling flour.”
We know the Miss such and such beauty pageants are shallow, we know that now and I think we knew that then. As Tracy Dodd, former Miss Great Britain 1982 said: “Beauty queens belonged to a different era where everyone was sweet and lovely and never did any wrong”, a silent 'allegedly' hangs in the air, whether or not in light of recent revelations.
What Wollaston is disappointed about is that these grown women refused to allow themselves to be manipulated into saying what the viewer, or director wanted them to say. Oh for one of them to stand up and renounce the whole thing! But why should they play into right-on PC politics if that's not what they think? The only thing worse than seeing footage of 1971 winner Carolyn Moore having to humour a host baffled by the notion of a Bank Manageress is the idea that all women who make a brief career out of their youth and beauty need rescuing.
In fact now they were allowed to give their true reasons for entering most of the entrants cited the prize money, rather than adoration, as their main reasons for taking the beauty queen route. Money for a deposit on their on house, money to set them up to start their chosen careers because they believed A Levels weren't for them. Some regret this choice now. Tracy Dodd, who when caught bunking off school to enter Miss New Brighton was informed by her headmistress: “We had high hopes for you academically. Don't throw that away.” Did you listen? Asked Berryman: “No!”
Just like any collection of interviews with middle aged women there were sad stories, happy stories, annoying anecdotes and 'saw that one coming a mile off' relationship disasters. There is of course also the issue that is now rearing it's ugly and late to the party head of predatory men taking advantage of young women. Today in the Guardian Kira Cochrane discusses sexual harassment in the office in the 70s and if much difference has been made today. “others, while accepting that sexual harassment was rife in the 70s and 80s, have suggested it has all changed for women in the workplace now. The implication is that a combination of awareness, women's growing economic power and legislation that began with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and has been updated repeatedly, has stamped out the problem.”
Oh well thank goodness that just like broadcasting beauty pageants and harassment in the workplace that doesn't happen now. Finally we treat women as what they are, adults with autonomy, Sam Wollaston will demonstrate: “Tracy at least took on board what her headteacher said, albeit belatedly. When husband Steve traded her in for a younger model, she left their beautiful Australian mansion, came back to England, did A levels, went to uni, got a teaching job. Oh, but then she packed that in, because it didn't pay well enough.” Oh Ms Dodd, Wollaston disapproves. Leave what most people would describe as an undervalued job for a better offer? I shake my head.
It was not this documentary so much as its reception that has alerted me to how important it is that we don't allow dangers and harassment to be dismissed as 'old fashioned'. We mustn't dismiss these women involved in an environment that I don't doubt was fraught with unpleasant instances. It is all too easy to sweep such things under the carpet of carry on campness : discontinued, but that carpet is getting awful lumpy.