In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
-- Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"
I've been reading some feminist film theory lately, and came upon an interesting tidbit about Laura Mulvey (best known for bringing 'the gaze' to film critique). As a member of London's Women’s Liberation Workshop, she participated in the protest of 1970's Miss World Pageant, which involved lighting stink bombs, throwing flour bombs, shooting water pistols and making a lot of other ruckus during one of host Bob Hope's routines. And thanks to YouTube's worker ants, the incident is online:
What's interesting about that is how close Hope's intro lines up with Mulvey's own take on the male gaze: "I'm very, very happy to be at this cattle market tonight. Mooo. No, it's quite a cattle market; I've been back there checking calves." With the emcee, a proponent of the contest, being so direct about what was going on, I wonder if there was any need for the counter-spectacle. Hope did get defensive, though, saying that the protesters must've been "on some kinda dope" to disrupt "an affair as wonderful as this." For her part, Mulvey thought the incident a success, writing with collaborator Margarita Jimenez that it was "a blow against passivity, not only the enforced passivity of the girls on the stage but the passivity we all felt in ourselves" (from "The Spectacle is Vulnerable: Miss World, 1970"). But if being called cattle doesn't wake the girls up, what good is the stench of sulfur and a starchy haze? On the contrary, if you've ever seen one of those MTV docs about the beauty pageant circuit, you know that it's a lot of hard work to be this "passive." The contestants have to really want to be the objects of the dominating gaze, like Phyllis Schafly putting her duties as a homemaker on perpetual hold to defend traditional femininity against the ERA and anything else that's come up in the subsequent years. Beauty contestants are proactive supporters of the patriarchy, true ideologues. One might as well blow kazoos at a Klan rally to alert the racists of their false consciousness.
The type of woman who enters beauty pageants will continue to exploit her genetic gifts because it gets her things she wants (how else could one explain Donald Trump's marriages). What the demonstration accomplished was, as Lynne Harne explained in her London Feminist Network "feminar" was "an iconic moment in terms of what Women’s Liberation was about." That is, it was a reactive spectacle directed at those of like mind: young, budding feminists. It wasn't activity versus passivity, but ideology versus ideology, action versus action. And it proved that Bob Hope was a real asshole.