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Paying lip service to the gender-equality myth

By Nina Funnell - posted Wednesday, 26 August 2009

In some countries women aren’t allowed to wear swimsuits. How does that make you feel? This was the question put to Aussie finalist, Rachel Finch, in the Q&A section of the Miss Universe contest.

It’s not a bad question to ask oneself. Simple but direct, it cuts straight to the heart of one of the great gender inequality issues faced by women in the world today. Finch drew breath and proceeded to answer:

"Ummm I believe wearing a swimsuit, especially as a part of a beauty pageant, is a beautiful thing. It gives everyone of us the chance to show our figures and our toned bodies and what we have worked hard for and I think our bodies are a beautiful part of a woman and we should definitely, you know, show them to the rest of the world."


The crowd liked her answer, even if it did sound a little contrived. It was also refreshing to hear a Miss Universe contestant admit that looking that good takes a lot of hard work (be it in the gym, the make up chair, or the surgeon’s office).

But the answer was not enough to get her across the line and top honours went, for the second year running, to Miss Venezuela. Like Finch, Miss Venezuela was also asked to wax lyrical on a feminist topic:

“In many parts of the world obstacles still exist that impede women from achieving their goals in some corporations. What can women do to overcome this?”

After the question was translated, Miss Venezuela responded; “I believe that nowadays we women have overcome many obstacles and I do believe that we have reached the same level as men have. We must realise that there are no longer any barriers amongst us.”

In fairness to Miss Venezuela, she probably had not heard a translation of the question put to Miss Australia only moments prior. If she had, perhaps she would have paused before espousing that women have achieved equality and that “there are no longer any barriers” for women. After all, we can hardly claim that women have achieved equality - in the corporate world or anywhere else - when their bodies are still being policed and their freedom is still being suppressed.

But perhaps the most curious part of all this was the judges decision to ask the feminist questions, only to reward the answer that denied any need for contemporary feminism. Of course pageants are notorious for being won by women who speak in politically correct, inoffensive platitudes (especially if they drop in the expression “world peace”) and this is exactly how Miss Venezuela’s answer came across.


But there is something deeply concerning about rewarding women who pay lip service to the gender-equality myth that says that women have already achieved equality. Even in a first world country like Australia a quick look at the statistics shows that women still have a long way to go.

Aside from the fact that women earn 16 per cent less than men, that abortion is still a criminal offence in certain states, and the fact that women do the bulk of unpaid labour in the home, it’s worth noting that violence against women and children costs this country an estimated $13.6 billion a year. These are sobering facts that all women should be aware of.

Yet despite this, young girls are still being taught that women have achieved equality, that the fight is over, and that feminism is like fluoride: you don’t need to worry about it because it’s already in the water.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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