By Caliesha Comley
Last Wednesday, the GC Student Women and Gender Society (SWAGS) was pleased to host Dr. Karen Tice of the University of Kentucky Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Dr. Tice was invited to present her recent research on campus pageantry and student culture.
Dr. Tice currently serves as professor and chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and has a joint appointment in the Department of Educational Policy Studies.
Her interests in gender and education, race, class and the body are well represented in her recent book Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and Campus Life, published last year.
In addition to her personalized and humorous delivery, the themes represented in her research are captivating to a campus audience. She explores the intersection of race, class, beauty, Christian evangelism and idealized representations of women and their bodies in the context of higher education and student culture.
During her talk, Tice explained that beauty pageants and their crowned campus queens have historically received a lot of attention. This tradition, though perceived as archaic by many, continues today with increased investment by university administration, especially in the American South, a region some call the “pageant belt.”
Besides crowns, campus queens are often offered scholarships, campus offices, opportunities to lead beauty and spiritual workshops and even jobs, all based on judgments about their poise, beauty and bodies. Pageantry requires women (and men) to be rated on appearance, with often superficial references to “talent” or “intelligence.” Impassable standards are implemented for body discipline in swimsuit sections of competition and requiring contestants to report body proportions – all in the name of student life.
Her search for answers about why higher education is interested in cultivating a normative standard for student bodies led her to reveal socially located student discourses of sexuality. She also took special interest in the ways pageants for black and white women differ. While white beauty pageants tended to center on self-branding, personal achievement and ambition, pageants for black women often had more culturally specific agendas to challenge racism, increase visibility of black women in academic settings and create pride in black beauty.
Dr. Tice also shared her connection to the Georgetown tradition of honoring normative standards of beauty in the annual Belle of the Blue competition. In 2002, Tice sat with the panel of judges during the pageant to observe when it was announced that the Director of Student Affairs, who was self-proclaimed as very dedicated to Belle of the Blue, was unable to attend. Though suspicious, the pageant continued. The next day, however, Georgetown College made national headlines, being featured on NPR and the Jay Leno show.
It turns out that dress rehearsal become violent when a contestant, who would later be crowned Miss Congeniality, was dragged off stage and physically harmed by that year’s Director of Student Affairs during a cowgirl-themed gymnastics routine involving a large stuffed pig. The Director was arrested on charges for fourth degree assault all, because she deemed Miss Congeniality’s talent “not lady-like.”
At the end of her lecture, Dr. Tice explained how standards of femininity, beauty, bodies and representation of students were very embedded in student life at many college and universities across the United States. Tice declared pageants as a means of creating and publishing “visible symbols of ideal womanhood to represent campus,” as well as a “problematic way to deal with important student issues.”