Syracuse University Press, 2008
Reviewed by Julie M. Skogsbergh, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Power is necessarily both about seeing and being seen, and the two interact in complex ways in order to produce even more intricate hierarchies (99).
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but some have more power to behold than others (17).
Susan Dewey’s timely book, Making Miss India Miss World, highlights the intricate details of the Miss India pageant with a specific focus on the day to day lives of twenty-six young women who were chosen to participate in the Miss India pageant training program. Dewey accomplishes writing an ethnography that incorporates theoretical constructs such as Foucault’s notions of the “panopticon” (51, 99) as well as “total institution” (99) while also weaving in feminist theoretical perspectives on gender in order to create an accessible piece of interdisciplinary scholarly work.
In chapter one, which also serves as the introduction to the book, Dewey provides the reader with a first-hand look into her world as a participant-observer of the Miss India pageant’s training program. She embodies a feminist anthropological perspective through the use of reflexivity with regards to her own positionality through openly discussing her role as a researcher granted exclusive access “behind the scenes.” Dewey demonstrates this as she candidly reveals that “it was made perfectly clear to [her] several times throughout the course of [her] research by both pageant officials and critics of Miss India that [she] would not have been provided with such access had [she] not been a young, fair-skinned, and attractive foreigner” (14). In addition, she also discusses that her very access to the pageant came as a result of her work as a writer for Femina, “the most widely circulated women’s magazine in India,” which is owned by Times of India Group, the company that also owns the Miss India pageant (14).
The remainder of Making Miss India Miss World is divided into three parts. Part one, titled “The Power of the Gaze,” includes chapters two and three, in which Dewey analyzes interviews with these young women and their day to day pageant experiences. She describes at length the training these young women received during the month prior to the pageant through highlighting the many different types – physical, in the form of diet and exercise; social, in the form of etiquette and ideology; and language, with an emphasis on British-accented English. Dewey also highlights the many restrictions placed upon the program participants in addition to their being under constant supervision by pageant organizers as well as the media in a culture obsessed with all things Bollywood.
Part two, titled “Gender,” includes chapter four, which discusses how the young women’s bodies become “representations of the nation via a process that involves femininity as cultural performance” (9). Dewey does a particularly excellent job in this section through connecting the themes of gender, class, agency, and power through highlighting that gender is first and foremost, a construct (51), and secondly, drawing upon Judith Butler’s work, that gender is a performance (3).
Chapters five, six, and seven comprise the final section of the book, part three, which is titled “Globalization,” throughout which Dewey interrogates issues surrounding international standards of beauty (11, 167) as well as concepts of modernity, consumerism, coloniality and post-coloniality specific to economic liberalization in India following the implementation of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies in 1991 (6-7).
These three sections discussed above indicate the three thematic foci of the book which come together to highlight “the complex nexus of beauty, power, and class” (6). Indeed, Dewey clearly illustrates by the end of her narrative that the label “beautiful” is associated only with those select young women who embody the “white European standards of beauty,” (167) which she states are, “extraordinary height, fair skin, and very little body fat” (101-102).
Upon finishing Making Miss India Miss World, I immediately recalled the famous line from the classic Grimm fairy tale, Snow White, in which the evil queen asks “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?” (Ashliman). Indeed, we quickly learn through Dewey’s detailed descriptions of the young women chosen to participate in the Miss India pageant training program that “fairness,” which is to say, being light-skinned, is a significant, if not an absolutely essential attribute that Miss India must embody to be a true contender for the crown (46-48, 59-60, 74, 101-102, 131,163-167, 171, 181). Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Dewey’s revelation of how she sat in each week on the contestants’ individual sessions with the pageant-hired dermatologist, and that “every single one of the [twenty-six] young women at the 2003 pageant was taking some sort of medication to alter their skin, particularly in color” (163).
In the end, however, Dewey fails to explicitly address ideologies of race and racism in her overall analysis. This assertion is nothing new, but rather draws from a long-standing critique that emerged among Women of Color/Transnational feminists in response to the mainstream feminist movement’s unwillingness to address race in conjunction with gender and class. Indeed, “making gender and power visible in the processes of global restructuring demands looking at, naming, and seeing the particular raced, and classed communities of women” (Mohanty 2004, 246).
Lastly, in addition to a racial analysis, I argue that racism must also be incorporated into the overall analysis given that racism is “an ideological, structural and historic stratification process” and “a global system of material and symbolic resource distribution management” (Page, www.euroamerican.org). I contend that a book addressing the intersectionality of beauty, gender, power, class, colonization, structural adjustment, and the nation must also include a comprehensive integration of race and racism into the overall analysis given that “the modern world was thus expressly created as a racially hierarchical polity, globally dominated by Europeans” (Mills 2008, 99).
Ashliman, R.D. The Grimm brothers’ children’s and household tales. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimmtales.html
Mills, Charles. 2008. Global white supremacy. In White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg, 97-104. New York: Worth Publishers.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2004. Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Page, Enoch H. Definition of racism. http://www.euroamerican.org/library/Racismdf.asp
Julie Skogsbergh is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology and a Graduate Certificate Student in the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as well as an Adjunct professor in the Multicultural & Ethnic Studies Department at Westfield State College. Her dissertation research focuses on beauty culture, whiteness, and the intersectionality of race, class and gender among the Dominican diaspora in the US, and in Lawrence, MA, in particular. Julie is a member of the AAA, as well as the ABA and the AFA. She is currently teaching an US-based Anthropology course titled Inequality & Oppression as well as a course titled The “Minority Experience” in American Life & Culture at UMass-Amherst in addition to a Multicultural US History course at Westfield State College.