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College+Beauty+Queens - Queens of Academe Campus Pageantry...

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Queens of Academe: Campus Pageantry and Student Life Karen W. Tice BEGINNING IN THE FIRST DECADES of the twentieth century, the Westernized beauty contest prototype of individuated competition has proliferated in communities and nations across the globe. Such popularity results from the very flexibility of beauty pageants, which can be molded to fit an array of differing historical and cultural contexts and agendas. Be- cause divergent notions of nation, region, markets, race, ethnicity, cultural identity, class, and sexuality have been historically mapped onto women's bodies, beauty contests have been significant sites for constructing notions of locality and community. As a result of their ability to respond to shifting idealizations of gendered, raced, and class-based beauty, respectability and distinction generated by the contestants, sponsors, and audiences, pageants are inherently political. Consequently, they often reinforce hegemonic social relations and domesticate race and class divisions, but they nonethe- less can articulate divergent identity projects. One local-and largely overlooked-U.S. site where the cultural power of beauty pageants has long been felt has been in higher education. On first consideration, colleges and universities seem to be unlikely venues for showcasing beauty, yet they have been in the business of sponsoring stu- dent beauty pageants for more than seventy-five years. Beginning in the Feminist Studies 31, no. 2 (Summer 2005). © 2005 by Feminist Studies, Inc. 250
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Karen W. Tice 1920s, the crowning of women college students as May Day, homecoming, prom, and academic department queens emerged as prominent aspects of U.S. campus life, as did the selection of student queens to represent col- leges and universities at local civic and industry festivals. Queen contests, in fact, became the most popular and, in many cases, the primary source of prestige and ceremonial space afforded women students on college cam- puses. Especially for women, who lacked the wide array of extracurricular opportunities available to college men, dating, romance, deportment, and attractiveness became important elements in a gender-differentiated pres- tige system? By 1950, it was observed at the University of Minnesota "that no campus event is complete without the selection of a princess, sweet- heart, or dream girl."' Royalty rituals that rank students on the basis of idealized versions of beauty, femininity, masculinity, desirability, re- spectability, poise, and aspirations still maintain a prominent place in collegiate cultures today. College pageants and their contestants represent a multitude of personal and political agendas. Vast differences and contradictions exist within and among them. As a result, these pageants are rich cultural sites for explor-.
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