Although attracting huge audiences the contest was never taken very seriously by viewers, the main interest was finding out how Miss United Kingdom would fare. The most repeated put down was ‘you see more attractive women walking down the street than those appearing in the contest’. Most contestants were in the 18-23 age range with slim, yet curvaceous, figures, with ideally a pretty face. The audience was split fairly evenly between men and women, and was considered acceptable family viewing, with virtually nobody voicing any criticism of the idea of such contests. The highlight was the one piece swimsuit parade after which the winners would be announced in reverse order from the remaining contestants who reached the final round, with the crowning of the new Miss World coming as the finale.
The golden age for beauty contest was between the early 1950s through to the late 1970s, after which interest gradually began to wane amongst the British public. Until the 1970 event there were very few objections raised to the contest. If there had been any they would have come largely from the Christian moralistic right. The following comments are representative of this viewpoint ‘the contestants are revealing their flesh in an immodest provocative way’, ‘these women are wearing the suits to show off their nearly naked bodies to a watching audience. Displaying one’s body is the sole purpose of the swimwear’ and ‘I do struggle to reconcile such competitions that blatantly promote immodesty’.
During the late 1960s such views would have been dismissed as prudish and puritanical by liberal progressives, pursuing an agenda of sexual liberation. Even Mary Whitehouse, arch critic of TV permissiveness, never raised any objections, although earlier generations of religious moralists would have condemned the contests as sinful for encouraging lust. This outlook, from a time when organised religion held more dominance in society, explains why beauty contests only became popular in the more liberated post war years. Given the increased level of permissiveness that had taken hold by the end of the 1960s, nobody was expecting an attack on them to come from the left of the political spectrum. So the protests from feminists at the Miss World 1970 contest came as a big surprise to many.
During the late 1960s the women’s liberation movement began to gain ground in the United States, and in early 1970 it had arrived in Britain with protests demanding equal pay and employment opportunities, contraception and abortion on demand, and 24 hour child care. These concerns were not taken too seriously by the male dominated media which tended to dismiss and ridicule the protestors as ‘bra burning women’s libbers’ holding what were then considered extreme feminist views. Due to their often unappealing appearance they were seen by wider society as an aberration seeking to challenge traditional notions of femininity and beauty. However, they would have one major advantage in their favour, as their cause was quickly taken up by the highly vocal and increasingly influential leftist agitprop movement.
So this was the background to the 1970 Miss World final held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In the middle of the comedy routine performed by Bob Hope he came under attack from a barrage of exploding bags of flour, rotten vegetables and stink bombs, which had been smuggled into the event by about 50 feminist activists. The police were called and the protesters were removed from the building. The viewing public watched in amazement as this normally heavily staged managed event quickly descended into chaos.
Bob Hope’s comment on the protest that ‘anybody who interrupts something as beautiful as this must be on some kind of dope’ probably summed up the feelings of the vast majority of viewers. The message from the protesters was rather different exclaiming that ‘we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry’ and ‘ban this disgraceful cattle market’. In response the Daily Mail denounced the protesters as ‘yelling harpies’ and asked ‘what was degrading about accepting the beauty of the human body’. The Times argued that the protesters exalted ‘an essentially functionless feminism’ targeting an event ‘traditionally regarded as quite harmless by most people’. This was a view shared by the majority of Fleet Street and most of the British public, both women and men. This hostile response to the demonstrators was also in tune with the progressive spirit of the time, which sought greater permissiveness and sexual freedom, not puritanical repression.
It should be stressed that the Miss World protest had nothing to do with the wider feminist agenda seeking greater equality in the work place and the demand for an end to other forms of discrimination. Instead it was an attempt to suppress the legitimate entertainment of millions of ordinary people, and to enforce the women’s libbers antagonism to ‘the portrayal of women, and their objectification, and sexualisation, in society’. As justification the feminists declared ‘beauty contests normalise the judging of women as objects.’
Thus a new concept entered the political discourse the ‘objectification’ of women, defined as treating them as a mere object of sexual desire, or as a commodity without regard to their personality or dignity. However, this argument is a travesty of the true position; male sexual attraction is never based on the bogus concept of ‘objectification’, but rather an appreciation of feminine beauty, a perfectly natural biological response which should never be stigmatised in this pejorative manner.
So the denunciation of female ‘objectification’ was not motivated by demands for greater equality for women, but was instead an attack on male heterosexuality. It was a reversion, in a modern guise, to the Victorian social purity movement which had sought to tame and control the base sexual urges of the rampant male, but this time under the banner of politics rather than religion. Although the new feminist movement allied itself with the then radical left there is no doubt that the puritanical motivation was based on much the same phobias as the earlier Victorian moralistic Christian campaigners.
The BBC continued to broadcast the Miss World contest throughout the 1970s and for a time it still retained large audiences. But the attacks by feminists continued, supported by the activist left. Instead of ignoring this unrepresentative special pleading the organisers resorted to appeasement, substituting evening gowns for swimsuits and introducing interviews to focus more on the contestants’ personality and interests. But to no avail, these changes alienated the viewing public that was primarily only interested in the beauty parade, and the ratings began to fall. By the end of the 1980s Miss World was no longer shown on mainstream British TV. So fifty feminist fanatics had managed to create a climate in which gradually the entertainment of 22 million viewers of a harmless and wholesome event could be destroyed without any regard to their interests or wishes. Needless to say the BBC, which at the time unequivocally condemned the disruption of a flagship programme, now celebrates this protest as a milestone in women’s ‘liberation’.