Beauty contests, for men as well as women, are one of the last bastions of political incorrectness. They are occasions where the ‘objectifying gaze’ — anathema to correctness — is allowed free and glittering rein. So, it might sound bizarre, if not downright perverse, to some that the preliminary round of the Miss India contest, the country’s biggest beauty pageant, will be hosted by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, which is known, like all the other IITs, for a gender ratio severely skewed against women. Yet, both for the IITs and for the Miss India contest, this may not be a bad thing after all — and not for the most obvious reasons.
Everything that is objectionably archaic in the traditional beauty contest for women is encapsulated in the title itself. “Miss India” conjures up visions of maidenly commodification — endorsed by a whole, inherently sexist, system of perceptions and profit — that many women and men find unacceptable (or uninteresting) today. Perhaps, by re-situating such a dated, and jaded, ritual in a new sort of venue, all this might be changed too, and a fresh and contemporary idea of ‘beauty’ re-invented, in a good-humoured and entertaining way. Beauty, especially female beauty, could be freed from its traditional packaging to be projected as a quality compatible and identifiable with the other kinds of distinction that are usually seen as inimical to conventional definitions of female good looks, formulated for the benefit of certain kinds of men. Similarly, institutions of academic excellence that are suffering from chronic gender imbalance, by hosting an unusual event in an unusual way, could give their male students an occasion to think about their unquestioned attitudes and patterns of behaviour, making these commensurate with their proven distinction in academics. With a bit of unconventional inventiveness, men being persuaded to be decent spectators of a pageant of attractive women might address a neglected aspect of higher education.