The Miss South Africa (MSA) 2021 pageant was recently held in Cape Town, where University of Pretoria law graduate Lalela Mswane walked away with the crown, reminding me of an encounter I had a few years ago with a finalist of another national pageant, Mrs South Africa. Then I recalled that there are two more pageants — Mr South Africa and Miss Teenager South Africa. The differences between the four competitions is obvious and could be attributed to three dynamics — age, appearance and social responsibility. Pageants adhere to particular socially constructed paradigms and parameters that have a dialectical reinforcement and resistance relationship with social culture. 

Political and feminist philosopher Nancy Hirschmann uses the lens of social construction to deconstruct the relationship between internal and external barriers to psychological freedom, and highlights patriarchy as a powerful source of “unfreedom” in society.  She states that feminists point out that male domination is an important part of social construction and that laws, customs and social rules that come from men are imposed on women. This restricts their opportunities, choices, actions and behaviours. She says that these rules are constitutive of what women do, their desires and preferences, as well as what they are and how they conceive of themselves. 

The concept of the “patriarchy” is usually considered divisive and polarising, with the two main opposing camps arguing that it is either a legitimate analytical tool, or a scapegoat for all things that are wrong with our society. So, while I draw on Hirschmann’s theory of social construction to make my argument about the social construction of beauty pageants, I will suspend my own views on patriarchy, and instead substitute the concept with the notion of “social culture”.

Do beauty pageants construct or dismantle psychological barriers that are disempowering for the contestants and audience? To what extent are participants, aspirant entrants and observers empowered by the practices in these competitions? To what degree are all parties enabled or restricted by the meanings conveyed, promoted and entrenched by beauty pageants? Are the desires and preferences that are cultivated by this activity imposed? Do they promote a culture that curtails or advances opportunities, choices, actions and behaviours? These are complex and empirical questions that cannot be addressed by mere generalisations.

The competitions appear to be a microcosm of the macro schemas we find in society. Based on this, some general comparisons could be drawn between them to try and understand the meanings projected to them by social culture and what they in turn project back to society. The eligibility criteria as well as the roles and responsibilities of candidates shed some light on the socially constructed norms regarding age, appearance and social responsibility.

The eligibility requirements for Miss SA are that the prospective participant should be between 20 and 28 years old, neither be pregnant, married nor a mother, she need not have an educational qualification, not even matriculation, and prior charity work is not necessary. 

MrSA hopefuls should be presentable and well-spoken, in the 20 to 40 age range, married or not, no specifications about being a father or not, and he should not have a criminal record. 

The criteria for Miss Teen SA is that she should be 13 to 18 years old, be registered at a high school, never pregnant or married, with no criminal record, and must be accompanied by a guardian. 

The Mrs SA prospective entrant should be between the ages of 25 and 50 and “happily married” given that her husband has to participate with her in some competition activities. She need not be a mother, pregnancy is permitted but is not advisable because of health risks, and the competition pivots on charity work, fundraising and social responsibility .

The Miss SA pageant is the crown jewel among them and the R4-million prize package is testimony to that, as compared to the R750 000 for Mr SA, less than R100 000 for Miss Teen SA, and in-kind sponsorships of mostly beauty enhancement and preservation products for the Mrs SA winner. If one considers the prize package in relation to the age ranges, it appears the women and men in their so-called prime years with minimal responsibilities are rewarded more generously than the teenage dependents and the “mature” (by virtue of marriage) women. 

The younger women have a window that is just under 10 years to compete, whereas the men have two decades. It appears that the criteria and rewards for each age group and gender indicate how they should be occupied, their duties, and how they will be rewarded as ambassadors of their demographic.

The Mrs SA prizes are essentially anti-aging products for women who are doing all they can to hold on to the appearance of youthfulness. Unlike men, who are perceived to look increasingly dignified over the years, women are plagued by the indignity that comes from having to contend with notions that they had passed their sell-by date.

The appearance aspect that I mention is a long and entrenched “beauty debate” and the competitions are a stage for this ongoing discourse. Credit should be given to organisers of such competitions as well as social activists, worldwide, for some of the huge transformations that have taken place over the past decade, with respect to beauty standards. Miss SA 2019, Zozibini Tunzi and Shudufhadzo Musida, Miss SA 2020 are history-making examples of long-overdue paradigm shifts about what constitutes beautiful hair, and the denouncement of “othering” based on racism, colourism, and body shape. 

A similar revolution is taking place at Mr SA. In 2019, some finalists were considered too “ordinary-looking” because they were not the stereotypical “handsome hunks”. The organisers say the competition is not a “beauty pageant”, it was not reserved for male models, and that the governing objective of it was to identify a man who demonstrates the virtues of “compassion, integrity and professionalism”. This is a long way from the aspirational search for an alpha-male type. 

Another remarkable change is happening in terms of inclusiveness, diversity and the respect for human dignity. Transgender women are now eligible to enter Miss SA, there are no longer weight prescriptions, and the racial demographic of the finalists is becoming increasing reflective of the population. The changes are not smooth though, it will take time for the new constructions to settle. 

To discuss the social responsibility component, I return to my encounter with the Mrs SA finalist. I was invited to her fundraising event that included a wine auction, sponsored book sales and soliciting donations to the charity of her choice. She was disappointed with the turnout of only two dozen people in comparison with the 100 that she invited. More significantly, she was anxious that she would not meet her fundraising target and would be disqualified from the next stage of the competition. 

If you recall, among the four competitions, only Mrs SA is obligated to do charity and fundraising work. In fact, winning is contingent upon the amount of money the ultimate winner raises. Earlier this year, after the crowning of the Mrs SA 2021 winner, Thenjiwe Mdluli, an ugly spat took centre stage between one of the finalists and the organisers. Chandre Goosen-Joubert alleged that the competition was exploitative, that it was for the enrichment of the organisers, and she further claimed that after competing cost her almost R1.8-million, she considers it to be a scam. The organisers replied that she was a “dissatisfied loser” whose statements were malicious and false and they attempted but failed to interdict her from publicising her allegations. 

In social construction terms, the women in the Mrs SA age range are the majority of caregivers in society. Others, including children, men and older people can graciously “help” them, but the final domestic and community responsibilities usually lie with them as  the “mothers of the nation”. Simply put, Miss Teenager SA, Miss SA and Mr SA demographic members would usually have a Mrs SA demographic member responsible for their overall well-being. 

But the construction process does not end here. Inasmuch as it could be assumed that the aspirant beauty pageant candidates are not forced to enter the competition, each demographic is not enslaved to social construction. The relationship between the individuals and their society is more nuanced because they are not merely passive recipients of social constructions.

Hirschmann’s degree theory helps ascertain the extent to which a subject or agent participates in social construction. It facilitates a determination of the degree to which a person feels relatively free, autonomous or empowered in their society. It does so by evaluating how external and internal barriers combine to render a subject both enabled and restrained by meaning created in society. 

While some have more power than others to influence meaning in social culture, everyone participates in the construction of the culture, to varying degrees. This collective input creates an arguably unintended consequence that no one is fully free in the context. Everyone is restricted in some way or other and to some degree. In the tension between resistance and reinforcement of social culture lies varying degrees of freedom.

Even though I have argued that society is constructed, it is not stagnant. A micro example of this is the criteria, eligibility and requirements for each of the pageants, which are constantly being adjusted, amended or even changed. Perhaps pageants hold a mirror to the face of society that allows for individual and collective “self-reflection”.


Sarah Setlaelo

Sarah Setlaelo

Sarah Setlaelo is a writer with a master of philosophy degree from the University of Johannesburg and a qualification in African feminism and gender studies from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute

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