Dear Sri Lanka,
By Shani Asokan
Recently, an event in the entertainment industry pushed our country back into international headlines. I wish I could tell you that this time the news was positive, but unfortunately, the only positives in our island lately have been COVID-19 test-related. No, this particular event happened to be a beauty pageant and the scandal that followed the crowing of a new Mrs. Sri Lanka.
I’m sure by now, you are all aware of the chain of events that directly followed the grand finale unless if you perhaps sought refuge under a rock this past week, since there’s plenty of reading material on it. As expected, countless concerned citizens chimed in, during the hazy aftermath of the humiliating dethroning of the new Mrs. Sri Lanka Pushpika De Silva, who had her five minutes of glory before being shamed off stage, and opinions were divided. Did she deserve the public humiliation she endured on stage? Was Caroline Jurie, the 2019 winner of the pageant, right in dethroning her? And most importantly, was this real life or were we all experiencing the same fever dream?
In a shocking twist of events at the end of the pageant, Jurie claimed that De Silva could not be awarded the crown because she was divorced, and the rules stated that contestants must be married to take part. What followed was a moment that can only be described as something out of a telenovela. Spectators both present and online wondered about the legality of Jurie’s actions and whether her allegations rang true. Though we have now learned that De Silva is only separated (her divorce has not been finalised) and that the crown has been returned to her, the details are still marred by a lot of conflicting news and ‘evidence’.
Regardless, the question remains: Did De Silva deserve the humiliation she endured on stage? In my opinion, the answer is simple. No. Jurie acted on uncorroborated evidence and made it look like her actions were empowering and for the greater good. They were in fact, disempowering. There is no empowerment in humiliating another woman, regardless of the situation. Jurie’s actions reaffirmed stereotypical ideas that women are prone to in-fighting and fuelled the idea that women are more of a threat to other women than the patriarchal institutions that bind them. So no, yelling into the microphone, ripping off a crown and then pumping her fist in the air alongside her co-conspirator Chula Padmendra is not something to be lauded.
The events as a whole however, make me wonder, why in 2021 is this even a topic of conversation? Beauty pageants are a hangover from far more patriarchal times: they reinforce patriarchal ideas by objectifying women and holding them to unrealistic beauty standards.
For the most part, they focus on the superficial features of a woman, sexualising her for entertainment. They breed and reinforce the toxic culture of pitting women against women for a prize that erases their unique identities and replaces it with a standard that is almost entirely based on their outward appearance, make up and clothing. This culture, then viewed by women and girls everywhere promotes the idea that there is only one narrow concept of beauty. Anyone who does not fit this specific standard is excluded from being beautiful.
It causes women to subconsciously evaluate themselves according to these standards, feeding into damaging behaviour of wanting to be everything that is deemed ‘necessary’ to measure up to the standard that has been set for them. Physical appearance becomes a form of validation that pushes other attributes such as knowledge, qualifications, mindfulness and empathy to the sidelines. It reinforces the idea that women are expected to fit a profile that is flattering to the ‘male gaze’. So why, in this day and age, do pageants of this sort still exist?
I must add here, that a woman’s free choice to contest in such an event is not something to be judged or criticised. Instead, I think it is important to understand the social conditioning that has taken place to allow pageants to become something so deeply-rooted in our culture that we see them as a form of light entertainment and not as yet another form of patriarchal oppression.
The Mrs. Sri Lanka pageant serves as an excellent example. The rules that frame the pageant set out criteria for what the organisers and society perceive to be ‘the perfect woman’. This excludes women who are divorced, almost as if their agency in getting themselves out of a bad marriage or a situation that they find toxic makes them less of a woman. Further, it is fairly easy to find out if someone is divorced through a simple background check, so why was De Silva allowed to progress right up to victory? Is it because women stepping on other women is entertaining? Is it because a video of the same had the potential to go viral, thus bringing more attention to this event, further solidifying its place in our society?
These are questions we must ask amidst all the sensationalism that comes with such an event.