Artwork by Olivia Abeyta

On Jan. 14, I sat with my mom flipping through channels on cable TV with a bucket of popcorn and nothing to watch. Then – as if some higher power wanted us to – we came across the 71st Miss Universe Competition airing in Spanish on Telemundo.

Before we knew it, it was down to Miss USA and Miss Venezuela. We held our breaths as the announcers declared Miss USA the winner. Miss USA being R’Bonney Gabriel from Houston, Texas. This win might be a small step for the international beauty pageant, but one giant leap for the U.S., as the 28-year-old is the first Filipino American to win the title. Her win marks the U.S.’s ninth victory, making it the country with the most Miss Universe wins.

The Miss Universe Organization’s goal is to provide women with the tools to serve as “inspirational leaders and role models to their communities and fans around the world,” according to their website. Gabriel’s philanthropy involved using fashion as a force for good through sustainability efforts at Magpies & Peacocks, a non-profit design house dedicated to circular fashion.

While Miss Universe provides a platform to represent women, some students say the pageant method is outdated.

Weinberg second-year Amanda Ward said she has never really tuned into the show, but this year she found Miss Universe content through social media.

“I’ve always thought that the concept of pageants are very dated and very odd,” Ward said. “To have women dress sorta skimpily, parading in front of people – it's a dated idea created by the patriarchy.”

While Ward is talking about the pageant as a whole, she points specifically to the swimsuit portion. In allowing the contestants to show off their physique, the women walk the stage in swimsuits. Which is a weird way to judge women, as it does play into who wins or not.

Miss America, another major competition, has done away with the swimsuit portion, arguing that the women should be judged not on how they look but on who they are. The key difference between Miss America and Miss USA is that winners of Miss America won’t advance to Miss Universe. Miss America even turned its doing so into a social media campaign “#byebyebikini.” Miss Universe and Miss USA, both owned by JKN Global Group, maintain a swimsuit element of the competition, and there has been no word of them doing away with it any time soon.  

Weinberg second-year Quinn Cook raised his eyebrows at the judging process of the pageant, specifically the judging process. He said that declaring someone the “best woman” is arbitrary, especially because of the organization's exclusionary past. That might change going forward with next year being the first year where wives and mothers can compete.  Cook said that pageants are “inherently silly.” When Weinberg third-year Varshi Narayanan brought up the organization's philanthropic efforts Cook was quick to mention that “the damn NFL” also has similar efforts.  

Not all NU students are so ready to change the channel on the pageant. Ward added the women who compete should not be treated as collateral damage or be written off just because the organization is associated with dated beliefs. She argued that the contestants use the competition as a platform, most of the time, for good. When they win, Ward believes we shouldn’t trivialize their accomplishments. For example, during former Miss Universe Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu’s reign, she started a coalition in her home country of India to work towards menstrual equity. With this Ward raised the question: Does the work of the contestants and the organization not count for something?

Narayanan said she believed there is room for improvement in the future of Miss Universe.

“I think it can evolve and I think it does give a lot of people opportunities,” Narayanan said.

Despite believing that the competition has room to become more inclusive, Narayanan finalized her thoughts by saying, “Inherently it is just objectifying women.”

Perhaps Gabriel’s historic reign as Miss Universe will expedite the organization's reform efforts. I’d have to admit that while watching the contest, I got carried away by the sparkly dresses. The glitz and glamour of it all will really make you forget any negative connotations the pageant has. But I, for one, would like to see where the organization is headed. Even if that means I have to “accidentally” watch it for a couple more years.