Monday, 5 May 2008

SEX SELLS – BUT WHAT'S FOR SALE?

Rhonda Grant, a Massey University graduate and third place-getter in this year's Miss Universe New Zealand pageant, found herself at the centre of a minor scandal last week. A photo of her, clad in a white bikini and kneeling, knees wide apart, in the surf, was posted by Massey University on its website. Grant's pageant success was reported amongst news items detailing the university's academic achievements, and intended to promote Massey as an attractive academic destination.

AUS, the national Association of University Staff, took umbrage with Massey's use of a beauty queen as a promotional tactic. AUS has long protested the numbers-based model used to fund universities, obliging them to compete with one another to get bums on seats – and the dollars which those bums bring in. Montgomery saw Massey's use of Grant's picture and story as a sign of 'desperation to market universities as ‘attractive’ places to gain knowledge and transferable skills intersect[ing] with the use of the sexualized female body'. Simply put, Massey University is using sex to sell itself.

The first I knew of the issue was when John Campbell conducted an unenlightening interview with Grant on Campbell Live. Was she proud of her academic achievements? Campbell asked the beauty queen. Yes, replied Grant, who has a Bachelor of Science degree. She did not feel the bikini photo sexualised her in any way, she said, and recommended competing in beauty pageants to increase one's self-confidence. And in these individualistic times, feeling confident in a bikini seems to pass as a personal accomplishment for a woman, irrespective of the effects of beauty imagery on other women and girls. (Grant also said that, as a beauty queen, she'd like to help children in third world countries. It struck me that her scientific knowledge might be more useful for this than her being pretty; but let's not split hairs.)

Campbell, at least, seemed satisfied with Grant's bikini-empowerment theory. He concluded the interview by noting that Maureen Montgomery had declined to appear on the grounds that her problem was not with the beauty queen herself, but with Massey's use of Grant's pageant achievement and photo as a promotional tactic. This was the gist of Montgomery's argument, and Campbell skirted around it entirely. Montgomery came across as the very stereotype of the bitter, sour-graping feminist, stamping out fun and sex and youthful exuberance with the flat heels of her dowdy beige shoes.

There's a world of only-too-familiar debates around the representation of women's bodies, and I plan to give them a wide berth in Campbell-like fashion. I'm more interested in the question Campbell didn't ask: what business does a publicly funded academic institution have promoting an image of a bikini-wearing beauty queen as an image of a successful woman?

Personally, I don't much care if science students want to enter beauty pageants in their spare time. I don't find these pageants offensive so much as quaint and mildly ludicrous. Flaunt your fake tans, don your bikinis, save the world's children. Claim you're not being sexualised. Like, whatever.

What I do mind is a university holding up a pageant entrant as an example to which a female student might aspire, or as an attraction which might draw male students to enrol at Massey. It's a tactic which doesn't sit well with my idea of academic integrity. In theory, at least, the university is an arena in which everyone gets the same opportunity to do well. Supposedly, factors like gender and race, sexuality and appearance don't matter: the liberal, egalitarian ideals of the university will ensure you're judged on your academic merits, not how hot you look in a bathing suit. You can get as many high marks as you like, Massey's website seems to suggest, but having a nice rack remains an inspirational female accomplishment – even in an environment in which only intellectual ability is supposed to matter.

If I want a degree, I'll go to a university. If I want to show off my shapely buns and thighs, I'll go somewhere else. In the meantime, I want an assurance that Massey University is concerned with encouraging women's academic achievements, not our bikini-empowerment.

9 comments:

Deborah said...

Just so, Anna. I kind of feel that the whole thing degrades my Massey degree (NB - not my 'big' degree, but one that I am proud of, nevertheless).

Great post, BTW, and welcome to THM.

Anna McM said...

Thanks Deborah - it's great to be amongst like-minded ladies!

Psycho Milt said...

Disclaimer: Massey's my employer.

The Massey news site doesn't simply report "news items detailing the university's academic achievements," it reports any awards or achievements by staff, students and alumni that are drawn to the comms and marketing guys' attention. You'll note the same page of news that features Rhonda Grant also features a guy who was in the V8 Supercar races at Hamilton, and some others doing barefoot water skiing. That's one of the things the news site is there for.

Not for the first time, I'm embarrassed to be a member of the AUS. I can only imagine what kind of message it would have sent if the comms and marketing people had taken the AUS approach and said "Oh yeah, these other guys' achievements in their extracurricular activities are going on the site, but not yours - yours we don't like." What a fine blow for diversity, tolerance and academic freedom that would have struck...

stargazer said...

great post, and am so glad that someone has the courage to speak out about stuff like this. it's exactly the drubbing that women get in the media for daring to complain about the sexualisation of women that stifles women's voices.

seems you don't get the point, psycho. mr v8's achievements weren't attached to a photo of him in a "lockwood smith" style pose, with his erection and biceps bulging out for our titillation. a lot of women are sick of the double standards when it comes to celebrating male and female achievement, and we should be able to speak out about it without having to face the nasty stereotyping.

Anna McM said...

Hey Psycho

Yeah, you make a fair point about the news site - I had a look at it, felt that the news was primarily stuff which is of interest to the academic community with a couple of other things, then condensed the point for the sake of brevity!

There's nothing new about universities celebrating students' sporting achievements, and cultural achievements too.

I guess my concerns are that the beauty pageant thing is less an achievement than something which could make women feel alienated from the university, when used as a promotional tool. And I completely agree with Stargazer - I've never seen male sexuality 'celebrated' by a university, or a male achievement sexualised. I think universities are very selective about what they choose to celebrate as students' achievements, and in this case they chose wrong!

Anna McM :-)

Trouble said...

I'm not impressed by the way Scoop covered this either. It doesn't seem to be online anymore, but their headline for the feature which covered the Massey and AUS press releases read something like "Meanness: AUS slams beauty pageant winner" when it's clear from the release that AUS is slamming Massey for using the winner for their promotion. And Massey's release was only about the contestant, not the V8 guy etc.

Of course, every dispute vaguely relating to an attractive woman should be described in catfight terms rather than seriously considering the place of beauty pageants in the 21st century.

I thought we were well past this kind of thing, anyway.

Julie said...

Good work Anna, lovely to have you on board!

Does anyone know if there is a feminist group in Dunedin who still protest outside the Miss NZ pagaent each year?

Anna McM said...

Not as far as I know. I was part of an infamous (at least in my mind) protest a few years ago, but I don't think there's anything regular, or a group committed to it.

IrishBill said...

I've got to say I love "bikini-empoweredness", it's a classic example of backlash in action. Remember girls your sexuality (or at least the commodification of it) is your fem-power in action! But irony aside I recognise that bikini-power is part of the same continuum that has seen women blamed as wanton seductresses and authors of their own demise for eons but still struggle to see an alternative other than a Dworkinesque victorianism. It's that old liberal vs radical feminism thing I suppose but to be fair I give so little thought to gender politics nowadays that the answer is probably far more obvious (and less dichotomous) than I realise. Little help?