UPDATE: Olivia Culpo, Miss USA, is Miss Universe 2012. The second place prize went to Miss Phillipines. Miss Venezuela placed third.
According to missuniverse.org, winners of the Miss Universe go on to "embark on a year-long national speaking tour. As a national spokesperson and advocate...addressing diverse audiences, increasing awareness and promoting her chosen platform." This is wonderful work to be doing, and many Miss Universe winners have a platforms dealing with social, environmental, or national issues of great importance. But to make the route to doing such important work involve the objectification and sexualization of young women around the world is a disservice to the intelligent women competing and to everyone tuning in.
The 2000 film Miss Congeniality wasn't the high point of Sandra Bullock's career. But several vignettes in the movie itself pointed to the ridiculousness of the concept of a beauty pageant. Who could forget the refrain by pageant director "Kathy Morningside" of, "It's not a beauty pageant, it's a scholarship program!" This was the singular argument offered by the character in retaliation to naysayers of pageantry. Even with its status as a scholarship program that promotes philanthropy among the competitors, what is the pageant actually known for? Gowns, bikinis, costumes, dancing, and primarily the "ultimate" beautiful/sexy/attractive woman.
As an enterprise, this serves to reinforce to young women and girls worldwide that in order to be successful in your professional life and accomplish whatever goals you may have it's important to be the most beautiful, the thinnest, and to have your peers approve of your appearance. Additionally, sexual availability is a necessity to win, as contest rules dictate women can be neither married, nor pregnant, nor ever have been married or had children (and they must remain single for a year should they win). This brings to light a logical paradox plaguing young girls and women in many cultures: You must be chaste and virginal, but be sexy and on display for the viewers benefit. For a taste of how impossible this balance is to strike, watch the trailer of Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth followed by the trailer for Miss Representation.
Viewing these messages back to back shows you just how rampant the cultural message is that women should be sexy, beautiful, on display, and available but should not actually have sex and "ruin" their virginal status. With the standing contest rules and essence of the competition itself, Miss Universe reinforces this antiquated, sexist paradox.
The sexualization and objectification in the competition is sometimes more difficult to explicate, but often a more obvious undercurrent running throughout the competition. Following a strict definition of objectification, it's problematic that frequently the contestants are referred to not by their name, but instead simply by country. For example, judges narrate while a competitor walks the runway saying, "Cayman Islands is a self-proclaimed foodie, she rarely tastes something she doesn't like," and "Canada would like to open an advertising agency." The women thus become nameless and gaining significance only through their country of origin. They are the "object" of their country offered to the viewer for judgement based primarily on appearance.
As a culture, as an interacting world, it's time we move beyond this competition. It's time we stop putting women on display and be steadfastly unapologetic by crying out that "she chose to compete, didn't she?!" Yes, these women may have chosen to compete, but in no way does that void any argument against the institution. Because when the cultural messages being fed to women since birth are that their sexuality and their appearance are essential in determining their value and worth as human beings, participation in your own objectification and sexualization becomes less confounding. In order to deconstruct sexism in our world, we need to stop hiding behind arguments of "choice," and not stand for sexism in practice like that of Miss Universe. We need to realize that when the roles society tells women they should play in our world are limited, the "choice" is necessarily limited as well.