Shame as Ritual

by zunguzungu

The pundits had hardly finished twittering about the scandal of a Muslim woman being crowned Miss USA when they were presented with fresh scandal, the fact that the woman in question danced around a maypole or something and there are pictures of it. We are shocked, shocked to learn that the woman crowned Miss USA was doing something other than nursing children and knitting when she wasn’t being filmed in her underwear for broadcast television.

/sarcasm. As Amanda Hess and Tracy Clark-Flory note,

Fakih’s “official Miss USA glamor shots” are actually significantly more risque than the “stripper” shots…Fakih is wearing less clothing in her glamor shot than in her pole-dancing pics—we’re talking fishnets, a garter and a bra compared to a tank top and booty shorts. In all seriousness, you’re likely to see racier getups on suburban soccer moms at their local strip aerobics class.

Which leads them to note the obvious point that

“like many arbiters of female sexuality [the Miss USA competition] wants a lady in the street but a freak in the, uh, swimsuit competition.”

Yet Clark-Flory brought up something that’s seemed worth pursuing a bit further, the observation that

“The beauty queen’s fall from grace has been institutionalized and mainstreamed…The post-win scandal is now every bit as expected and essential part of the pageant as the swimsuit portion of the show.”

Which is to say, it’s not only that the women in this pageant are required to be two irreconcilable things at once, though that’s perfectly true; it’s that the public celebration of their failure and their ritual denunciation is not a bug but a feature. In other words, while it’s generally true that women get socialized to be virgins and also to be whores, it is at least theoretically possible — if not necessarily easy or comfortable or healthy — to navigate that contradiction in at least some social contexts. Entire genres of self-help literature exists to help women manage the conflict, and it’s important to recognize (though not, of course, to excuse it on this basis) that at least many of the people engaged in this project do so in a kind of good faith. Ignorant, misguided, sexist, perhaps; but I think it’s worth remembering that for so many mothers instructing their daughters on how to live in the world, or for so many well meaning apostles of true womanhood, the point is to teach women how to succeed. And while the penalty for failure still falls almost completely on the women in question, it is at least broadly understood that their failure does, in some sense, reflect a failure of the system.

What’s interesting about Clark-Flory’s observation, then, is that this is obviously and flagrantly not the case here. Failure is built into the structure of the entire Miss USA; you are required to be more of a slut than the rules allow you to be, and that happens because slut shaming is actually the point. We’re talking, in other words, about a difference in kind not of quantity, the difference between teaching someone to walk a tight-rope and of actually pushing them off. And the point of doing so, I think, is to disown even the sense of responsibility that good faith conservatives have for “our women,” since — as abhorrent as it is — a father/husband’s shame for his daughter/wife’s fallen sexuality at least expresses, implies, and imposes a sense of owned connection to “his” female, a sense of investment that can/might mediate the extent to which she will be punished for her trespasses. Maybe. But as bad as that is, the Miss USA is even worse because it’s precisely not about integrating women as subjugated; it’s about creating disposable females and then disposing of them.