Why Nina Davuluri Matters

Nina Davuluri

Please see original link in Vancouver Sun. Published October 5th, 2013.

 

After Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America, the first of Indian descent in the pageant’s history, the news elicited some predictable reactions. The initial surprise was followed by a sense of satisfaction that attitudes were moving in the right direction, but the feel-good mood was soured by a torrent of racist slurs from social media trolls, who referred to the beauty queen as a “foreigner” and even a “terrorist.”

Supporters quickly responded with condemnation of these detractors as “ignorant” and “uneducated,” and bolstered Davuluri’s star status. Reactions to her triumph and, to some extent, the spectacle itself, provide insights into our society — specifically, the evolving role of citizens of Indian descent and of the media.

Beauty pageants, once obsessed with physical attractiveness, have become a platform for rising talents in media and entertainment ­— with Diane Sawyer, Vanessa Williams, Sarah Palin and Halle Berry among the more prominent winners. While in years past, height, weight and the bathing suit competition seemed to matter most, judges today grade contestants on being articulate, polite and confident. A detailed personal interview not seen on television accounts for 25 per cent of the score and the talent segment is worth 35 per cent. Personality, social fluency and distinctiveness are the winning qualities of Miss America. The contest is no longer a parade of pulchritude but rather a screening for a media-savvy celebrity who will assume a high profile representing her country in an inter-connected, and troubled, world. Enter Nina Davuluri.

Apart from Davuluri’s telegenic appeal, impressive academic credentials from the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and her ambition to follow in the footsteps of her father by becoming a doctor, she has a compelling narrative — her personal story of struggling with an eating disorder, and an inspiring message that one blogger described as “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.” One lesson to be learned from the changing pageant and Davuluri’s victory is that institutions need to adapt to stay relevant in a competitive marketplace as demographics change.

Minelle Mahtani, a professor at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, notes that the media plays a vital role not only in disseminating information, but in shaping public attitudes and addressing the under-representation of ethnic minorities. She cites a MediaWatch study in 1994 that found “four per cent of the female characters and 12 per cent of the male characters were from diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds” in Canadian-produced dramas. But with the rise of ethnic vote targeting, multicultural marketing, corporate diversity initiatives and ethnic grocery stores, there are efforts to “convince advertisers and broadcasters that minority groups represent a significant untapped market.”

Consider the popularity of Punjabi broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. The New York Times reported that the online viewership through this past mid-March rose 45 per cent from the previous year, with the 2012 playoffs drawing in 229 per cent more than the previous year’s playoffs.

From the success of Bollywood fusion dance crew Broken Dance on Canada’s Got Talent, to the selection of a President Patel in Hollywood blockbuster Elysium, those of Indian-descent are being embraced by the public, most notably through comedy. Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are known for their humour as much as their self-conscious personas. Russell Peters, the Brampton-born superstar, helped spark a wave of YouTube personalities, where Amandeep Kang (known as AKakaAmazing), Jasmeet Singh (JusReign), and most remarkably, Lilly Singh — whose IISuperwomanII’s account has amassed over a million subscribers — entertain.

Yet success hasn’t come without obstacles. When TSN SportsCentre anchors Gurdeep Ahluwalia and Nabil Karim hosted their first show together in February, they were subject to a flurry of racist tweets. In 2007, Indian actress Shilpa Shetty appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K, and was soon the target of vicious bullying and racism, leading to over 40,000 public complaints and the subsequent suspension of the 2008 series. Kaling told television host Jon Stewart, she is appreciative of her success as “I’m a minority chubby woman who has my own show on a network. I don’t know how long this is going to last!”

Mumbai-born Reita Faria’s victory in the 1966 Miss World pageant helped re-define beauty, with Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994), Sushmita Sen (Miss Universe 1994), Lara Dutta (Miss Universe 2000) and Priyanka Chopra (Miss World 2000) following her lead. But Nina Davuluri’s task is much larger — her goal isn’t to symbolize a different standard of beauty, but to normalize it. Far removed from the public are the quiet identity struggles, with those of Indian descent often considered “different” and “inferior,” leading to a deep self-hatred, with some resorting to skin lightening and denying their culture.

Thirty years after Vanessa Williams became the first African-American to win Miss America, and a successful career as a singer and actress, Nina Davuluri dons the crown. But what will be her fate?

Roland Mascarenhas is a research associate at the University of Toronto. A former teacher, he has worked in the Indo-Canadian community for over a decade.

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