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Queens of Academe

Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life


Karen W. Tice


Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2012

Paperback. 254 p. ISBN 978-0199842803.  $24.95


Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert

Université François Rabelais (Tours)



Karen W. Tice teaches in the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, of which she recently became chair. She is the author of the intriguing Tales of Wayward Girls and Immoral Women : Case Records and the Professionalization of Social Work (1998). I first came upon her work in 2009 when I read an article she co-authored with Brenda R. Weber in, “Are You Finally Comfortable in Your Own Skin? The Raced and Classed Imperatives for Somatic/Spiritual Salvation in The Swan.” The Swan was a makeover and pageant reality show broadcast on Fox in 2004.

In Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life, Tice looks at pageants again, but this time with a specific focus on American university pageants. I confess I barely knew they existed and learned a lot. Everyone is aware of prom queens and high school homecoming queens, everyone is also aware of Miss Springfield or Miss Kansas or Miss America contests, but “queens of academe” are not so frequently shown on television, and not so frequently discussed at feminist conferences.

This book is a first. It is ethnography as much as sociology, and I believe it is destined to become something of a landmark in Gender Studies. It is based on case studies, interviews, and field work. It is efficiently divided into eight chapters, aptly entitled “Beauty and the Boar,” “Cleavage and Campus Life,” “Pride and Pulchritude : Campus Pageant Politics, 1920-1980,” “Making the Grade in the New Millennium : Beauty, Platforming, Celebrity, and Normativity,” “We Are Here : Pageants as Racial Homeplaces and Ethnic Combat Zones,” “Class Acts and Class Work : Poise and the Polishing of Campus Queens,” “Flesh and Spirit : Bibles, Beauty, and Bikinis,” and “Afterward : Class Work/Homework.” My favorite chapter title is, of course, “Pride and Pulchritude,” which is exactly about that. The first chapter functions as an introduction. It is slightly worrying, as Tice quickly announces a great many leads, but when you finish the book, you can only come to the conclusion that she has followed them all to a satisfactory conclusion. That first chapter also allows Tice to contextualize her findings, reminding her reader of pageants today, nationwide, and reality television beauty-related shows. Surprising as it may seem to some, more than forty American universities “conduct official, campus-based feeder pageants for the Miss America Pageant that include mandatory swimsuit competitions.” [13] This research is clearly the work of a feminist, but it steers clear of simplistic typically second-wave condemnations. No stone is left unturned, as Tice examines the motivations of each and every individual involved, notably, of course, those of university authorities and those of female (and now also male) contenders for academic crowns.

Queens of Academe is as much about race as it is about gender. Tice has looked at a couple of campuses in particular, notably predominantly African American campuses, throughout the twentieth century (in Indiana and Kentucky). She shows, among other things, how contestants, on mostly Caucasian and on mostly African American campuses, occasionally go very far in their “attempts to stretch the boundaries of the pageant template and its platformed performances of racialized femininity by using pageants as forums to challenge racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia on campus” [5]. Indeed, college contestants may see college pageants as ways to promote gender and / or racial empowerment. Tice has read every gender and race theory book, but she does not bore her reader with too much theory; she also has a historical grounding that is quite welcome. For instance, she never fails to illustrate that there are generally two sides to every coin. “Respectability” and “femininity” do not mean the same thing to everyone, and their meaning changes with time and place. Plus, this being the United States, religion often has a say. Tice eloquently speaks of “battles between flesh and faith” [27].

There are those who see college beauty pageants as ways to enhance “positive” feminine qualities, such as modesty, propriety, virtue; but there are also those who think them merely gross and vulgar. One of the most striking paradoxes highlighted by Tice is the way, in and around the pageants, that female students are basically encouraged to date, and be “desirable,” but of course without actually letting men touch their bodies. This book notably deals with the regulation of bodies, the relativity of beauty standards (according to epoch and degrees of racism). Naturally, one may ask, isn’t it always the case, everywhere in the Western world? Aren’t women throughout history supposed to compete for the “best” men, slutty enough to get them but pure enough to keep them, blah blah? Well, yes, and thank God things have been slowly improving since the 1960s; but what is fascinating in Queens of Academe is the way this is linked to academic pursuits, besides evoking old but still interesting debates between second-wave and third-wave feminists. What is equally fascinating is to see the links between civil rights and African American involvement in pageants. Indiana University president Herman Wells received appalling racist letters when African American girls started participating in theretofore exclusively white contests in Bloomington. Exclusively black contests are equally riveting, for different reasons. Isn’t it noteworthy to think that the NAACP once sponsored the Miss Black America Contest? It is also important to note how standards have changed. Female pulchritude, Tice tells us, came first until the 1960s when it came to judging the queens of the University of Kentucky:

Thereafter, however, beauty was no longer enough to win crowns and silence critics as the parameters of pageant performances were elaborated in attempts to make them more scholastic at UK and on many other campuses. These changing standards typically resulted in more penetrating evaluations of contestants’ social competencies and personalities. Contestants had to demonstrate that they could exude class, ease, and composure not only in the ways they presented their bodies but also their social fluency. Educational “rigor” was introduced into quests for the tiara primarily by the addition of new pageant competition protocols including talent, essay, and off-stage interviews with judges. [66]

In spite of the different ways campus contests have evolved, “ugly ducklings” still do not get elected very often. Beauty pageants—on and off campus—may easily be viewed, to this day, as inherently monstrous, inasmuch as they discriminate against “cosmetically challenged” individuals (as we say in PC parlance), and because of the dictatorship of beauty standards that are still largely determined by Caucasian males and lead many young women to anorexia or bulimia (which, as Susie Orbach reminded us, are feminist issues). But that does not mean we should not look at them (if not watch them) with interest, as scholars, to observe, the way Tice does, what they tell us about our society—particularly when they are perceived by their participants as empowering, however (hetero)normative they might appear. Think of those blond pop singers who show a lot of flesh in their videos, laughing all the way to the bank, reproducing or adopting when they choose, and electing their toy boys, while some feminists yell at them for setting back the cause of women.

College beauty pageants may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of American campus life, but, as Karen W. Tice states, “surviving and accommodating student mockery, apathy, lawsuits, and attacks from men and feminists, campus queen contests nonetheless remain a prominent feature of campus life today” [67]. And if a guarantee that the practice has many remarkable ramifications were needed, one might look at the lives and careers of queens of academe after the contest. Some have given birth to prominent Gender Studies scholars, some have become Gender Studies scholars, some have become ruthless lawyers. Besides, “a remarkable number of born-again campus beauty queens have launched post-pageant careers as televangelists, makeover coaches, pageant consultants, and inspirational speakers” [177].


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