Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC 3 about the Miss Venezuela competition. What I found most interesting, as well as the opportunity to see a host of beautiful women and an insight into modern Venezuela, was the significance to modern Venezuelans of what to the British appears a fairly odd and old-fashioned contest.
It seems that wherever you go in the world, there is a local television phenomenon that grips the population. This was highlighted in the film Slumdog Millionaire where the television event was the local version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (although a million rupees is rather less than a million pounds or a million dollars). In the UK at the moment, the top such media event is Strictly Come Dancing, although as in America and Europe the Simon Cowell format programs like Pop Idol are very popular.
So, what does this tell us?
The first thing that crosses my mind as someone who has never followed any of these shows is how formulaic all these shows are, the ridiculous extent that contestants will go to (as in the Miss Venezuela contest to expensive rhinoplasty, breast augmentation and dental treatment), and the grotesqueness of the judges and organisers.
But as Billie JD Porter, the presenter, showed these contests in all their ridiculousness provide fantasy and a means of escape for people (many very poor) and more than anything they provide a sense of shared culture. For whatever reason, beauty contests are the primary focus in Venezuela, whereas in America it is performing bland pop music, in the UK theatrical stomping to bland pop music, and in India to asking a whole load of difficult questions in a quiz.
And really the main significance is that these are forms of entertainment that complement national sports like Cricket (in India), Baseball (in America) and Football (everywhere else). Whereas sports are primarily of interest to men, these talent, beauty and quiz shows are primarily of interest to women.
There is a tendency amongst people like me who in a sense don’t get it, to dismiss all these things as tawdry and, in the case of beauty contests, demeaning, but I think this is misplaced. In what sort of world do we want to live where people cannot express themselves in the way permitted by these shows? And can we deny people the pleasure of a shared topic of conversation?
Although on one level, the Miss Venezuela contest is a way of objectifying a woman for the pleasure of a mixed audience, on another it provides a sense of belonging to a shared community with shared concerns. And whether it manifests itself in one way or another, it is a valid and important part of every culture,