Women's Strategies for Global and Social Mobility in Tanzanian Beauty Pageants

Book offers insight into Tanzanian gender, language ideology

Released: 12/12/2013 10:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – In Language, Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty Queen, University of Arkansas researcher Sabrina Billings looks at Tanzanian beauty pageants as a place where women use verbal and non-verbal communication to struggle for mobility, access to education and a place in the global world.

Billings found that Tanzanian beauty pageants differ significantly from those in western cultures because they are socially progressive events that in many cases provide contestants with an opportunity to access an education and social mobility that would otherwise be impossible.

“The women who participated in my study typically want a life different from their mothers — they don’t want to be beholden to a man whom they consider dishonest, controlling or abusive and they want to be able to have a career and make their own money,” said Billings. “They seek independent, stylish and modern lives, away from paternal or conjugal authority, and English is often understood as a critical tool in fashioning their own, mobile futures.”

Language, Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty Queen grew out of Billings’ dissertation research, which was prompted by a chance encounter she had with a Tanzanian beauty pageant in her second year of graduate school. Because of her background in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, Billings became interested in the way that language is used as a tool in the struggle for power and change in this unexpected social location.

The study of pageant participants’ communication gave way to a much larger study of gender, inequality, opportunity, and cosmopolitanism in Tanzania.

“Swahili is the national language and the most common language spoken by contestants and other pageant participants. However, English is seen as the ticket, and in many cases it is the ticket,” said Billings. “English is a cornerstone of pageant success, yet what that English sounds like, and what speaking it means in these events, is informed by a complex of local ideologies, practices and institutions.”

The use of English, then, is a way that participants present themselves within the pageant setting by communicating their social and educational status in the hopes that this skill will prove their worth in a globalized world.

The ways in which English is used is often not what we consider to be proper or Standard English, but still conveys information about the participants’ status, education and the like, wrote Billings. “More often than not, these varieties serve contestants well in conveying to audiences and judges information about themselves they wish to be known.”

Accordingly, in many cases those who come into the pageant as the socially “elite” participants end up winning and moving on to the global pageants, as their access to linguistic and semiotic resources stands out in comparison to other participants.

Billings found that though participants’ use of hybridized or non-standard English may demonstrate a relatively elite social status within a specific, local setting, its value often plummets when it’s relocated to a more national, global or institutionalized setting. Local and hybridized varieties of English, Billings said, “typically do not help speakers much in their quest to change the material reality of their lives, but instead afford their users rather slim opportunities for social or geographic mobility.”

Though the participants of Tanzanian pageants may not necessarily be successful by Western standards, pageants still provide women with other, unique opportunities to become a part of a more globalized world.

For example, participants engage in displays of cosmopolitanism to consciously mark themselves as knowledgeable of Western norms. In addition to their use of English, they become globalized citizens through their interpretation of western body image — including standards of weight, style and fashion, and use of make-up products like skin-lightening cream. They also demonstrate their concern with global issues such as HIV/AIDS, homelessness and child abuse.

The adoption and display of western norms has not gone uncontested, though. Some citizens of Tanzania consider beauty pageants and independent women to be a threat to society by undermining masculine authority. Accordingly, beauty pageants are still largely monitored by the state and continue to reflect official Tanzanian national culture. This manifests, most visibly, through the policing of language and the female body.

Billings is an assistant professor of world languages, literatures, and cultures and the director of the Swahili language program in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Language, Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty Queen was published by Multilingual Matters.


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