Lizzie Marvelly: Hey pageant chiefs - role models can have sex

Shaming of beauty queen over act of consensual sex shows scale of hypocrisy facing women.
Zara Holland's act of consensual sex was branded an "accident" by the pageant. Photo / AP
Zara Holland's act of consensual sex was branded an "accident" by the pageant. Photo / AP

Before this week, I had never heard of Miss Great Britain. Granted, like most competitions for the title of Miss Somewhere-or-Something, I may well have forcefully blocked it out.

It will likely come as no great surprise that I can't stand beauty pageants. The idea of a group of women competing for the position of fairest of them all is enough to make me want to regurgitate my breakfast.

Beauty pageants, those timeless reminders that a woman's value is intrinsically tied to her looks, belong in a dusty history book for future generations to shake their heads at - Yes kids, that's right, we used have competitions in which women were lined up and judged on their appearance and behaviour, with the winner held up as some kind of ideal of womanhood. It was rather like winning the best-in-show award, but with human contestants, rather than dogs. The beauty pageant is simply an anachronism in 2016. As are the organisers of the Miss Great Britain event.

When the news broke that Miss Great Britain had been stripped of her crown by pageant organisers (after it was revealed that she had sex with another consenting adult on a reality television show), my wilful ignorance of the pageant world sadly began to splinter.

Here was a story that contained three of my least favourite things: a beauty pageant, a reality television show and utter sexist bullshit. An unholy trinity of backwardness to remind women just how far we still have to go.

In a nutshell, Zara Holland, the 20-year-old reigning Miss Great Britain, had sex with 24-year-old Alex Bowen on the British reality television show Love Island.

The sex scenes were not broadcast, but the encounter was revealed during the show, prompting Miss Great Britain organisers to dethrone Holland and issue one of the most ridiculous statements in recent memory: "We pride ourselves on promoting the positivity of pageants in modern society and this includes the promotion of a strong, positive female role model in our winners ... The feedback we have received from pageant insiders and members of the general public is such that we cannot promote Zara as a positive role model moving forward ... We wholly understand that everyone makes mistakes, but Zara, as an ambassador for Miss Great Britain, simply did not uphold the responsibility expected of the title."

Not only did the organisers of Miss Great Britain publicly "de-crown" Holland and brand her consensual sexual encounter a "mistake", they also intimated that she is not a strong, positive female role model, because, shock horror, she had sex.

Unsurprisingly, the Miss Great Britain Organisation was quickly accused on social media of slut-shaming. In response, it tweeted, "To be clear we have no problem at all with sex - it is perfectly natural. We simply can't condone what happened on national TV."

Beauty pageants, those timeless reminders that a woman's value is intrinsically tied to her looks, belong in a dusty history book for future generations to shake their heads at.

So sex, apparently, is okay. It just must be done in a way that is never spoken about, alluded or admitted to. It is the idea that a woman may have had sex that is unforgivable, not the actual act itself.

Is anyone else feeling confused?

The greatest irony is perhaps that a competition that celebrates women as sexual objects, complete with a swimwear event, publicly vilified a woman who took the celebration of her sexuality to its logical conclusion and actually had sex.

The Miss Great Britain Organisation's handwringing and moralising provide a fascinating example of the conflicting narratives thrown at women on a daily basis: You must be sexy, but if you have sex you're a slut. Particularly if you decide to (gasp) have sex with someone you're not in a relationship with.

The implicit message in this age-old double standard is that female sexuality is to be celebrated when it is passive, curated and displayed for the male gaze, but the minute a woman takes ownership of her sexuality and makes sexual choices for her own satisfaction, she is somehow devalued.

The moment Zara Holland decided to have sex on her own terms was the moment that the Miss Great Britain Organisation decided she wasn't a "strong, positive female role model".

In their decision process they played straight into the culture of negativity surrounding women's sexuality. They followed a long and persistent societal trend that dictates that women who have sex for pleasure, for their own reasons, and on their own terms are bad, "loose" women.

When they hastily appointed runner-up Deone Robinson to replace Holland, they even created a saint/slut dichotomy. While Holland made a "mistake" that meant she was no longer a "strong, positive" role model, Robinson apparently "saw it coming". Speaking to news.com.au, Robinson appeared to have little sympathy for her fellow contestant. "At the end of the day, rules are rules and you have to stick to them."

There are some rules, however, that need to be broken. Like the ones that dictate that women should be punished for having sex, or those that chastise women for expressing their sexuality whilst congratulating men.

Along with the codes and conventions that encourage women to compete against each other in pageants, whilst holding the idea of a beauty pageant for men to be something absurd.

To my mind, these rules are basically begging to be shattered beyond repair. Zara Holland's sex life has nothing to do with her value as a human being.

And as for strong, positive female role models - if I absolutely must consider the terms "role model" and "Miss Great Britain" in the same breath - I'd much rather look up to a woman who feels comfortable with her own sexuality, who has sex for her own reasons and feels good about it than a woman who has to live up to an outdated moral code imposed by the organisers of a beauty pageant.

- NZ Herald

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