Yes, Germaine Greer, you can be a feminist beauty queen

It's not Miss England but the icon who's body shaming

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 19, 2014 5:59PM (EDT)


There she is, wearing a sparkly gown criss-crossed with a sash, a tiara on her head and a trophy in her hand. On Monday, 24 year-old medical student Carina Tyrrell became the pageant-winning Miss England. As a beauty queen, she's no doubt accustomed to critics snarking on her choices and her looks. But she may not have expected the vituperation to be coming from none other than feminist icon Germaine Greer.

Quoted Wednesday in the Telegraph, Greer came down hard on the newly crowned winner, who will go on to represent her native land in the Miss World pageant. After Tyrrell declared, "If you look into the Miss England competition I would say it is not about looking for the girl with the pretty face. It is about a girl who is charitable and will put others before herself, who is artistic and creative and sporty and healthy," Greer shot back, "I don’t buy the claim this is not about looks. If this girl didn’t know what she looked like she wouldn’t have even thought of doing it. There are plenty of girls as clever and talented as she is who would never go in for something like this because they know they wouldn’t get a look in before they are not pretty enough. She is a remarkable looking young woman and let’s hope she puts this title to good use." And then just to put her down a little more, she added, "I have seen pictures of her and I would say she is far too thin, there’s hardly anything of her. The other aspect of it is it is just a matter of genes. This young woman is conventionally good looking in the Barbie doll mould and that is just good luck." Noooooooo.

As my colleague Laura Bennett wrote in the New Republic a year ago, "Pageant shaming has become a part of our viral culture," and whether it's laughing at a contestant with a shaky grip on current events or putting her down for her weight, it seems it's open season yet again. This is not okay. This is not what feminism looks like. Commenting on women's looks is exactly the kind of old school negative crap feminism is supposed to save us from, not perpetuate.

At this point, it's Tyrell herself who comes off as the more forward thinking figure in the whole enterprise. Sure, just two months ago, in an interview with the Daily Mail, she said, "I’m not a feminist. I think the definition can mean so many things and more often than not it can be interpreted the wrong way. I would much rather say that I respect women’s rights and believe we are equal to men…. Feminism is a label that, frankly, has had a lot of bad publicity over the years. Young women my age have become a little suspicious. The message just doesn’t resonate with us. I respect everyone’s right to think what they want, but too often the people brandishing their righteous indignation have more strident views than I have." But Tyrell, whose physicist father helped build the Large Hadron Collider added, "I don’t think I’m letting intelligent women down by doing this and I don’t think I’m feeding some sort of sexist agenda…. I have a very high IQ and I want to be a beauty queen. I don’t see why one has to cancel out the other. If a young woman is caring, intelligent and charitable and she wants to participate in a beauty contest, then why not?" And by June she was being quoted in the Express with a revised position on feminism, stating, "I would call myself a feminist and I don't feel this title is incompatible with that."

As Miss World organizer Julia Morley told the Express this week, "It's absolutely possible to be a feminist and a beauty queen. We are all feminists if we care about women moving forwards and being independent. A lot of well-read women make claims that are old-fashioned and I am very disappointed that Germaine Greer is so out of touch. The girls are judged on their whole person. It's ridiculous to assume that if a girl wears a swimsuit she must be an airhead." Amen to that. You can be pretty and a feminist. You can be thin and be a feminist. You can be a dude and be a feminist. In fact, the only qualifications are a belief in gender equality and respect for everybody. And if you think you can't be an enlightened, progressive female while wearing a bathing suit or a crown, the mind that needs educating is yours.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Beauty Pageants Body Wars Carina Tyrrell Feminism Germaine Greer