Nowhere is the gendered double standard more apparent than in the Miss Universe competition.
While women in all industries face professional hurdles, pageants are one of the only workplaces where they are required to wear ball gowns while doing so. In this annual competition, women are expected to be gorgeous, intelligent, and poised; to look good in a bikini, ace a question-and-answer segment, represent their entire nation, and walk perfectly in high heels. Meanwhile Steve Harvey, the reigning male host, automatically exceeds expectations if he manages to read out the correct winner (and was somehow rehired after fucking up his one and only job).
The only thing more painful than seriously contemplating the female ideal that Miss Universe is suggesting—six feet tall, friendly, perfectly toned, well-spoken, and uncontroversial—is actually watching the Miss Universe competition. And still, year after year, hordes of catalogue model-esque competitors congregate and the world tunes in. The 2017 Miss Universe competition is back in the U.S.—Las Vegas, Nevada—and celebrating a momentous milestone: the most countries represented ever. That’s 92 women and roughly infinite opportunities for Steve Harvey to mispronounce a name. But who could blame Harvey for stumbling over his script, with a motley crew of vaguely familiar-looking judges and auxiliary hosts?
There’s Pia Wurtzbach, Miss Universe 2015; Lele Pons, an “influencer with millions of followers”; “pop culture expert” Ross Mathews; Farouk Shami, who Wikipedia informs me is a “Palestinian-American businessman and founder of the hair-care and spa products company Farouk Systems”; UFC commentator Megan Olivi; former Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam; and America’s Next Top Model’s own Jay Manuel. Helping Harvey with his hosting duties are Ashley Graham, Carson Kressley, and “runway coach” Lu Sierra.
It’s a race to the bottom to see who can say the most useless drivel in the peppiest voice as our intrepid team opens the show, grouping the contestants into three regional categories. As representatives from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific each take their time on the stage, the audience is left to wonder why there is a group of what appears to be Club Med performers (flowing white linen outfits, large drums) doing an interpretive dance routine in the background. Carson Kressley is not trying to be “shady,” but points out that Europe does not traditionally “rock it” in the competition. OK!
In order to fill three hours of live television, the Miss Universe competition cheats with a number of pre-taped video segments. For example, we get to catch up with Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere. Mittenaere reminds the audience that “I’m Miss Universe but I’m also a dentist student.” During her reign, she’s taken up the cause of free surgery for children with cleft palates. She’s also the first European Miss Universe in over 27 years, likely due to European women’s aforementioned inability to “rock it” in televised beauty pageants. Next up is a genuinely fascinating segment on Miss Iraq; the country is returning to the competition after a 45-year absence. I for one—perhaps naively—did not expect Operation Desert Storm to make an appearance in this year’s competition, let alone during the first hour block.
Harvey quickly moves the ceremony along from footage of a war-torn Iraq, and now we’re looking at clips from the preliminary competition. The contestants were subjected to multiple grueling days of “choreography rehearsal”—practicing their runway walks in a huge hotel ballroom. It’s like a high school model UN conference, but instead of debating, they’re all walking in a circle. Already, the group of competitors must be narrowed down to 16 women—four from each geographic group and four wild cards. With every new name, Harvey subjects a woman to a bittersweet moment, in which she simultaneously achieves a major accomplishment and has to make small talk with Steve Harvey. During one particularly memorable bit, Harvey asks Miss Sri Lanka to name all eight of her cats—a truly horrible question. He also appears to be contractually obligated to say “Jamaica” in a Jamaican accent.
Steve Harvey has two hosting modes: making jokes about the time he messed up and read out the wrong Miss Universe, and thanking God for making beautiful women. Choice examples include “I’m grateful for the Oscars, because it got me off the hook,” and looking a particularly tall contestant up and down while muttering “ain’t God good.” While this year’s Miss Universe competition actually attempted to grapple with the issue of sexual harassment, no one acknowledged the fact that these women are consistently being objectified at their own televised workplace. Adding insult to injury: They don’t just have to smile and bear it when Steve Harvey gawks at them—they have to actually laugh, as if he is funny.
Speaking of feminism, the war on the swimsuit competition has not yet made it to Miss Universe. Even better, before the infamous segment kicks off, we’re treated to a montage of the bikini’d contestants of yore. They’ve also convened a few current Miss Universe competitors to address the controversial act of judging half-naked women in high heels. South Africa says that she’s worked “so hard to be fit and to be healthy,” and she wants to inspire others to do the same. Great Britain has “chosen to celebrate my femininity,” adding, “Celebrate women! Why should we be apologetic?” For the next 10 minutes, we celebrate women—in bikinis and one-pieces, with and without sarongs. Six more women are sent home, for reasons that are definitely way more complex than how hot they look in a swimsuit and wedges.
To get to know our remaining contestants, the Miss Universe team has put together some more videos. Reducing an entire human life to a perky minute results in some very strange footage—a mix of very intense memories and slow-motion exercise shots. The most common topic is something the contestant has overcome. Miss Colombia was bullied when she was younger. Miss South Africa was hijacked and held at gunpoint in her car. Miss Thailand didn’t know what she wanted to do after college. Some contestants want to motivate young people, while others seek to empower women. Miss Philippines is a small business owner, and Miss Spain loves basketball.
Next up, Steve Harvey callously announces that the national costume competition was held earlier this week, robbing us of the opportunity to see all of the Miss Universe contestants dressed up as human airport souvenirs. He also calls Miss Japan’s patriotic garb—a kimono—“pretty hot.”
A lucky group of contestants is corralled to discuss sexual harassment, engaging in the age-old debate of whether or not men should stop harassing women because they have mothers and sisters or just because of basic human decency. Then it’s on to the evening gown competition, featuring a live performance by Fergie! During this segment, Carson Kressley calls a silver metallic cut-out gown with feather accents “very simple.” He also explains that “red says notice me,” as runway coach Lu Sierra screams, “Look at the face! Look at the face!” Fergie tries to make the best out of a difficult situation, and Steve Harvey announces our final five.
Now it’s time for the final question, aka the good shit. The questions are “from fans via Facebook,” and they do not disappoint.
Miss South Africa pulls off an inoffensive response, demanding “equal pay for equal work” for women worldwide. Venezuela is tasked with arbitrating if social media has “a positive or a negative effect on the way we judge beauty,” responding, “the social medias are what we make of them.” Thailand botches a question on “the most important social movement” of the day, instead declaring that “the youth is the future.” Jamaica confidently calls sexual harassment “a form of abuse,” continuing, “no abuse should be tolerated whether in the workplace or in society.” But Harvey saves the very best question for last, as Miss Colombia struggles to articulate, in detail, how she would explain terrorism to a child. You really can’t make this up.
Luckily, Miss Colombia gets to advance alongside Miss Jamaica and Miss South Africa. In the final segment, the remaining contestants are asked the exact same question—an easy prompt about their most admirable quality. Jamaica talks about her drive and her foundation for the deaf, and she even signs a little. Colombia is “incredibly passionate about everything I do,” and Miss South Africa explains that “Miss Universe is a woman who has overcome many fears.” After some more commentary from our backup hosts and a tearful goodbye from Miss Universe 2016, Harvey takes the stage to make one last joke about announcing the wrong winner before giving Miss South Africa the crown.
And just like that, three hours later, we’re done.