When Beauty Pageants Get Ugly

Grad Student Insists Charles University Disassociate from Battle for the Crown

By Marina Zheng

Photo courtesy of Jay Morrison/Flickr

Johana Chylikova decided to protest against the Miss UK Pageant, where eight female students of the university compete in different criterion including swimsuit and talent for a chance to earn the Miss UK title. Photo courtesy of Jay Morrison/Flickr

In a country where obedience is a highly prized childhood attribute, Johana Chylikova never did fit in with the rest of her peers. At the early age of ten, she started a petition against the quality of cafeteria food in her Prague elementary school. The suit never made it to the authorities; Chylikova was fighting a one-woman battle.

“At first, I gathered many signatures,” the charismatic blonde retells with a reminiscent smile. “But after the class ended, all those kids came to me and just erased their signatures because they were thinking about it for 45 minutes and they were very scared.”

Fast forward 19 years and Chylikova is still a lone voice in the wilderness of conformity, maintaining an original, outspoken attitude that continues to set her apart. In recent times, the third year PhD sociology student at Prague’s Charles University directed her energy towards a larger cause: stopping the university-affiliated beauty contest dubbed as the Miss UK (Univerzita Karlova) Pageant.

The pageant, first organized by a Charles University student Tomas Gavlas two years ago, is essentially a contest between eight female students of the university who compete in different criterion including swimsuit and talent for a chance to earn the Miss UK pageant title.

For a sampling of the pageant’s tone:

When asked to explain what improvements she would like to see at the university, contestant Marketa Majerova, a 23-year old philosophy student responded, “My fellow students, ask not what your university can do for you, ask what you can for your university.”

Although Chylikova had been aware of the pageant since its start two years ago, she decided to put her foot down only recently after being personally targeted by pageant lobbeymen on the campus of her own school. “I was there to teach a class and it was kind of humiliating for me because I was a teacher and someone was waving at me with a leaflet and telling me to participate in the pageant,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Archangel12/Flickr

Chylikova, along with 60 other students, protested against university affiliation with the pageant. Photo courtesy of Archangel12/Flickr

From Chylikova’s perspective, the problem does not lie in the fact that there is a pageant based on a sexist outlook that stresses the importance of physical beauty but rather that an event of this sort is associated with a prestigious university whose roots are grounded in intellectual ideologies. The issue is not a matter of what; it is a matter of where.

“It’s the combination of sexism and the university,” she explains calmly. “Sexism is everywhere, it’s all around us but the university is not a place to have such visible sexism.”

So along with 1,000 others, Chylikova became a part of an official protest Facebook Group, titled “Charles University without Sexism.” This time around, nobody erased their names after thinking twice. She, along with Charles University political science graduate student Katerina Knapova, wrote an open letter that included signatures and sent it to the school’s rector.

The university never directly replied to the letter but issued a formal response via the media stating that the educational institution does not agree with the contest and that actions will be taken to correct the situation. In a statement taken to IDnes.cz from Vaclav Hajek, a Charles University spokesperson, Hajeck said, “Competition for Miss UK and Miss Karlovka, although in its name refers to Charles University, have nothing in common with the UK and the UK is not organized. University leadership contests never expressed support or patronage and competition have been discussed with management.”

Unsatisfied by what she considered “paltry response” from the university administration, Chylikova took the protest writing to the streets. She, along with 60 other protestors, gathered outside the venue Club Roxy on the night of the pageant. Parading around banners with images of a hobo’s body attached to the face of a conventionally beautiful Czech celebrity and wearing sashes that printed with the “Charles University without Sexism” sign, the group demonstrated a peaceful protest that was both forceful and entertaining.

“The organizer of the pageant called me to ask whether there was going to be violence,” Chylikova said with a laugh. “I told him there was not going to be any violence. I really liked [the protest], it was fun.”

“We didn’t want to look like we are against those girls. They are between 19 and 22; they are very young,” said Chylikova. “The pressure of the society on the looks of the girl is so huge that you can never blame the girls for being in this kind of competition.”

Chylikova does not match some Czechs idea of what they think a feminist is: an angry, ugly man-hater influenced by an alleged American dislike for beautiful women having a good time. She doesn’t blame the pageant participants who were partaking in a tradition – the celebration of female beauty to the exclusion of other virtues — that has been a global phenomenon for centuries, not just in the Czech lands.

“We didn’t want to look like we are against those girls. They are between 19 and 22; they are very young,” said Chylikova. “The pressure of the society on the looks of the girl is so huge that you can never blame the girls for being in this kind of competition.”

In former Eastern bloc communist countries such as the Czech Republic, critics say this tradition went on longer than in the so-called West where a woman’s movement forced society to reexamine any tradition that seemed exploitive or unfair towards women. But in this region, some say women still see their physical beauty become a form of self-worth. It is a matter of power, not a matter of looks.

“Girls often use these contests to prove to herself that she is beautiful and this is extremely sad, in my opinion,” Chylikova explains as she blames the absence of female role models for the superficial and distorted perspective on beauty in the Czech Republic.

While Charles University has taken “all legal steps that lead to the removal of names from the name of the University and to remedy the competition,” Chylikova believes that in voicing her protests against the event, she has fulfilled her duty.

During the protest campaign, the Charles University graduate student received a few emails from strangers who wished to voice their disagreement with

Photo by Kelsie Blazier

“Sexism is everywhere, it’s all around us but the university is not a place to have such visible sexism.” Photo by Kelsie Blazier

Chylikova and her arguments.

“[They said] that I am weird and that I should go to the USA to see how feminism destroyed the people of America,” she said.

The aftermath of the campaign did not ease the blow; in fact, Chylikova was targeted by Czech neo-nazis for being a feminist and an anti-racist. She was added to the list of enemies on this particular group’s website.

Chylikova, however, did not feel intimidated.

“I know they can’t kick me out of school. I know they can’t kick me out of work. And I don’t care what other people think,” she said more matter-of-factly than aggressively. “Maybe that’s the strong character of a feminist in the Czech Republic; you really can’t care about what other people think.”

Marina Zheng is in the NYU CAS of Class of 2016. Her hometown is Shanghia, China.

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2014 Issue Number 3, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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