Book Review: Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America by Hilary Levey Friedman

There’s something a bit different on Joyful Antidotes today – a piece of non-fiction! And, not only that, I gave it a 4-star rating on Goodreads. Read on to find out why.

Goodreads Blurb

Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America by Hilary Levey Friedman

Many predicted that pageants would disappear by the 21st century. Yet they are thriving. America’s most enduring contest, Miss America, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020. Why do they persist? In Here She Is, Hilary Levey Friedman reveals the surprising ways pageants have been an empowering feminist tradition. She traces the role of pageants in many of the feminist movement’s signature achievements, including bringing women into the public sphere, helping them become leaders in business and politics, providing increased educational opportunities, and giving them a voice in the age of #MeToo.

Using her unique perspective as a NOW state president, daughter to Miss America 1970, sometimes pageant judge, and scholar, Friedman explores how pageants became so deeply embedded in American life from their origins as a P.T. Barnum spectacle at the birth of the suffrage movement, through Miss Universe’s bathing beauties to the talent- and achievement-based competitions of today. She looks at how pageantry has morphed into culture everywhere from The Bachelor and RuPaul’s Drag Race to cheer and specialized contests like those for children, Indigenous women, and contestants with disabilities. Friedman also acknowledges the damaging and unrealistic expectations pageants place on women in society and discusses the controversies, including Miss America’s ableist and racist history, Trump’s ownership of the Miss Universe Organization, and the death of child pageant-winner JonBenet Ramsey.

Presenting a more complex narrative than what’s been previously portrayed, Here She Is shows that as American women continue to evolve, so too will beauty pageants.

Review

I want to read more books that deal with female/feminist topics and Here She Is seemed as good a place to start as any.

Despite the author being the daughter of a former Miss America and a fan of pageants, she has written a well-rounded analysis of pageant history based on fact and not opinion. For a reader like me, who has only ever viewed pageants in a stereotypical way, it was wonderful to learn more about them in an unbiased manner. It was interesting to see where some elements of pageantry originated (suffragettes and the sash) and how pageants progressed over the years and formed the foundation for other aspects of entertainment today (think reality TV and The Bachelor).

Reading Here She Is presented many familiar faces I didn’t know to be associated with pageants: Oprah Winfrey, Gretchen Carlson, P.T. Barnum. It really was very interesting to see how other aspects of history and culture were connected to pageants. It was also really great to get a more in-depth view of the people who enter pageants. The stereotype of “blonde bimbos” is wrong. Many of the women who enter are very well-educated, well-spoken, and go on to make impactful changes in society. Plus, many enter solely for the purpose of winning a scholarship so they can ensure they get the education they desire.

One thing that was missing was how participating in pageants has changed thanks to the advancement of social media. Maybe it hasn’t made an impact but there was a part of me expecting it to be there.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. If you are willing to have. your eyes opened on a topic often met with mockery, pick up a copy of Here She Is now.

I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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