International Symposium “Democracy’s Poster Girls”

International Symposium “Democracy’s Poster Girls”

An international symposium entitled “Democracy’s Poster Girls: Beauty Queens and Fashion Models in Cold War Japan” was held on June 2nd, 2017, at Ochanomizu University. It was organized by Dr. Laura Nenzi (Specially Appointed Professor, IGS/Professor, the University of Tennessee), and the invited people included Prof. Jan Bardsley (North Carolina University at Chapel Hill) as the keynote speaker and Prof. Mary A Knighton (Aoyama Gakuin University) and Prof. Kazue Sakamoto as commentators. Their discussion revealed the social influences and gendered aspects of beauty contests during the Cold War political and cultural conditions and compared these historical beauty contests with current beauty contests.

Bardsley’s keynote speech pointed out that the beauty contests that popularized in the 1950s were part of a Cold War political and economic strategy. In particular, international contests held in the US served as colorful advertisements of the Pax Americana (international peace maintained by American dominance) and the US industries. The format of the contest, where women competed on stage for their charm, was considered a project aiming at women’s empowerment. The swimsuit competition, wherein all the contestants wore the same simple swimsuit, was interpreted as a representation of the “free and modern” women’s body.

In 1953, Miss Japan, Ito Kinuko, won at the third place in the Miss Universe contest and was praised by Japanese media for bringing honor to the country. When she returned to Japan, Ito became a very popular fashion model, but her fame did not last long. She was criticized for being too tall and too proud for a Japanese woman. Her charm, once applauded for being modern, was denounced as a representation of the danger of Americanization.

When Akiko Kojima won the Miss Universe pageant in 1959, a similar reputational shift from praise to criticism was observed. The overseas popularity of Japanese women triggered the inferior complexes of Japanese men. Miss Japan’s success in international beauty contests was, at the same time, an event that shook the existing gendered concepts of femininity and masculinity in Japan.

Even in the present Heisei period, beauty contests attract several people. Criticisms toward Miss Japan for a lack of Japaneseness are also repeated, and aggressive objections to a mixed-heritage queen have been articulated against a possible national representative. Nevertheless, Heisei queens are more active than Cold War queens in speaking out about their ambitions. These contemporary women express their confidence in accomplishing their objectives and encourage other women to participate in social activities.

However, while beauty contests may empower beauty queens, they are not able empower other women.. Feminists have long accused beauty contests of being women exhibitions and as imposing a uniform standard of beauty. Beauty contests encapsulate a complex composition of politics, economy, culture, and social issues.

Professor Knighton’s comments focused on three issues: military context, the Barbie doll, and pageantry and protest. The military context of Cold War Japan strongly influenced society’s gender norms. Post-war conditions coincided with the Cold War situation. Post-defeat US occupation and political control, existence of US bases on Japanese soil, and the economic prospects achieved by the involvement of the US in wars in East Asia and South East Asia undermined the confidence of Japanese men and made them insecure. In contrast, Japanese women were liberated by human rights, sexuality, and consumer culture. The US subordinated Japan and American men gained interest in Japanese women. This post-war US–Japan relationship can be interpreted as the feminization of Japan or a metaphorical representation of a gender structure between two countries.

The Barbie doll was a representation of the ideal woman’s body, as appraised in beauty contests. Barbie’s boyfriend doll was Ken, but GI Joe—the military male doll—filled the position of Barbie’s cultural counterpart. The combination of a man with military-style masculinity and a housewife with a perfect feminine body made up the ideal couple in the American society of that time. The Licca-chan doll was a Japanese version of Barbie. Licca-chan was modeled on a daughter of a white father and a Japanese mother, who had nihon-jin-banare (does not look Japanese) beauty. This figure appears to correspond to the US–Japan military relationship mentioned earlier.

Women appearing in public spaces by wearing beautiful costume, such as in beauty pageants, often appear at significant moments in the history of the women’s movement. In 1913, when women who took the center stage were regarded as trouble makers, Inez Milholland led a march for women’s right to vote in Washington D.C., attracting attention by riding on a white horse and wearing a white dress. This performance was inspired by the Joan of Arc. More recently, women wearing pink pussy hats marched against the policies of the Trump presidency. These actions were also an example of the use of fashion as a symbol of social movement. The meaning of women dressing up and standing on stage is apparent from these stories.

Professor Sakamoto presented her analyses on the criticisms toward beauty queens and the contests as well as the Japanese media’s coverage of Princess Michiko. In the 1950s, criticism toward beauty queens seemed to stem from Japanese men’s feelings of longing and envy. At that time, Japan was a developing country and the US was a subject of these feelings. The combination of men from developed countries and women from developing countries was superimposed on the international hierarchy of countries. In the 2000s, although the pattern of criticism appears similar, Japan is a developed country and the criticism toward beauty queens may have different causes. Pursuing feminine beauty through contests is, at first, applauded because it does conform to the existing gender norms. When queens begin to pursue professional success, through jobs like modeling, their actions come to contradict the norm that sets women’s life course as getting married and becoming housewives. Conservative women may judge such actions as betrayal. Additionally, the westernization of beauty queens is likely to lead anti-foreign sentiments. These elements seem to be more influential in the criticism toward beauty queens in the 2000s.

Feminists have problematized beauty contests in several ways, e.g., stating that women are judged by the standards set by men, the subject of judgment is an innate feature such as beauty, and appearance is prioritized over abilities. Today, however, we can see some diversity in beauty contests. Some contests focus on uniqueness and contestants’ ideas rather than beauty. Even in conventional beauty contests, participants’ efforts in maintaining their appearance are emphasized. Evaluation measures appear to have been shifted to participants’ accomplishments rather than being focused on innate beauty.

A shift of the image of women in the Japanese Imperial family is observed when examining the media coverage of Princess Michiko. Women’s magazines prefer to report on Princess Michiko’s fashion sense, in contrast to stressing the indifference to the appearances and clothing of the princesses of former generations. The women of the Imperial Family have become new role models as mothers, housewives, and fashion icons. This discussion indicates that the 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of women’s empowerment in post-war Japan. Sakamoto also suggested that the Japanese society has considerably changed since then.

Lively discussion on present-day beauty contests continued in the following Q&A session that was a great opportunity for intellectual exchange among participants. Before the opening of the symposium, Professor Bardsley walked around the room and talked to some audience members. This exchange increased the audience’s interest in Bardsley and the symposium. Ochanomizu University will be inviting Professor Bardsley as a visiting professor in the 2018–2019 academic year, which is expected to be another opportunity for deepening discussions on this theme.