Contesting Mr and Miss Cultural Heritage

Among the snippets of news that floated into my inbox in the past week, some have strangely aligned.

Last week I was surprised to click on one link and read that the Miss Uganda Beauty pageant has been taken over by the army, and the winner will be judged on her agricultural skills, as a way of promoting participation in agriculture in Uganda. This has to be one of the most left-field beauty pageant related stories possible and I enjoyed reading Kagure Mugo’s acerbic response (the original story is from August). Although I did find myself agreeing with one of the commenters in the Guardian – agricultural ability seems a no less arbitrary way of judging a beauty contest than swimwear or eveningwear rounds.

This ‘militarization’ of the Miss Uganda Pageant for the national cause of agricultural production oddly dovetailed with another of the week’s beauty pageant news stories. On Monday, Nicola Stylianou (project research assistant) pointed out that a competition is being run to find a ‘Mr and Miss Cultural Heritage Kenya’. The national winners of this competition will represent Kenya in South Africa at the Miss Heritage World Competition. Here, in two very different ways, are attempts to put beauty pageants at the service of the nation.

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It’s not news that beauty pageants can be powerful sites for the negotiation gender, citizenship and identity. Beauty pageants, framed in national terms, offer themselves as a way to imagine (and re-imagine) a nation. This is very clearly demonstrated in Caroline Faria’s work on South Sudanese diaspora beauty pageants. Her research in the run up to South Sudan’s Independence in 2011 showed how a Kansas (USA) based Miss South Sudan competition became a powerful vehicle for diasporic hopes for the new nation of South Sudan. It also prompted very gendered discussion of who can represent ‘authentic’ South Sudanese culture in the international forum of a beauty contests.

The creation of a new state is a case par excellence to see people thinking through national identity. Of course, the Kenya and South Sudan contests are very different examples. But the question of the negotiation, construction (and branding) of the nation and its culture(s) is unavoidable in Miss Cultural Heritage Kenya. The national competition is being promoted as an opportunity for Kenyans to sample a variety of cultural heritage from across the country and select a cultural ambassador for the international competition in South Africa (and the competition is open now).

I’m looking forward to hearing any discussion that this competition generates over the next month. I’m sure there will be a lot of fun for those involved. I can only imagine the difficulties of selecting the winners; maybe the Ugandan army are on to something when it comes to beauty pageants…

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