Sabrina Billings on Language and Tanzanian Beauty Pageants

Sabrina Billings, author of  Language, Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty Queen, describes how she came to research Tanzanian beauty pageants.

When people learn that I have just written a book about language and Tanzanian beauty pageants, one of several questions typically surfaces. Those who are not familiar with the often relatively obscure research interests of anthropologists, including linguistic anthropologists such as myself, ask, How did you become interested in such an unusual topic? Others wonder, What do beauty pageants have to do with language? Many query, How are standards of beauty different in the US and East Africa? And sometimes, people sheepishly ask, Did you yourself ever participate in beauty pageants?

Language, Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty QueenI am taking this invitation to blog about my book as an opportunity to set the record straight: No, I never participated in beauty pageants! In fact, I grew up seeing pageants as a rather antiquated and sometimes disturbing, albeit occasionally entertaining, form of quintessentially American popular culture. And beyond watching with some delight the question and answer portions of the events on TV, it never once occurred to me to consider the happenings at pageants from a scholarly, let alone sociolinguistic, point of view.

Rather, my interest in beauty pageants began as a fluke during my first ever visit to Tanzania as a graduate student participating in an intensive Swahili language program in the lovely, mid-size city of Morogoro. After seeing banners advertising an upcoming pageant I convinced several of my classmates to come with me, purely for the novelty of the experience. From the moment I stepped in the doors, I knew I would have to rethink my assumptions about beauty pageants. While sharing many of the trappings of pageants familiar to me – a decorated stage, bantering MCs, choreographed dance numbers, and besequined contestants – what was going on at these events was vividly different. Perhaps most surprisingly, the audience had come for a party. Young people, dressed to the nines in fashionable clothing, mixed and mingled, enjoying bar drinks and lively dance music. Well-dressed older people were there too, visiting, laughing, or waiting patiently.

After the event got started, I started paying attention to language use. One of the MCs engaged in a lot of English-Swahili codeswitching, while the other one used mostly pure Swahili. At one point, with my fledgling Swahili skills and the ample amount of English used by the one MC, I was able to understand them discussing the fact that Swahili was the national language and important for everyone to know, though contestants were allowed to speak either English or Swahili. I also picked up on threads of a discussion between the two MCs about the relative importance of each language, a topic which struck me as unusual for such a jovial atmosphere. Some of the comments seemed to be grappling with the fact that one of the contestants was from East Asia and did not know Swahili at all. Though there was much that night I did not understand, two main points became clear to me: 1) that these pageants were hip, which in my mind, was the antithesis of those with which I was familiar, and 2) that these pageants allowed for some kind of display and negotiation of local linguistic practices, policies, and ideologies.

For a couple of years, while I was completing my coursework and exams for my PhD, I ruminated over the events of that night, and as I learned more about language ideologies, East Africa, and beauty pageants, I decided to run with it and make these events the focus of in-depth fieldwork on pageants in three cities across Tanzania, research which would culminate in my dissertation.

While my original fieldwork and dissertation focused primarily on language ideologies exhibited in and around pageants, the present book is much expanded in scope and moves well beyond strictly linguistic considerations. The book reflects a decade of engagement with pageants and their participants, allowing, among other things, for a longitudinal glimpse of women’s lives after pageants. Most broadly, my book addresses how young Tanzanian women attempt to craft satisfying lives for themselves, how pageants play a role in their efforts, and how language use facilitates or constrains these dreams.

Three main themes are threaded through the book: education, globalization, and opportunity. In terms of education, I consider how contestants are able to manipulate their often rudimentary knowledge of English to present themselves as elite, and how such contestants often win over their fluent Swahili-speaking counterparts. In terms of globalization, I examine how global norms for language, dress, and beauty circulate in Tanzania and get reinterpreted in locally meaningful ways, and also how linguistic and non-linguistic signs are linked together in clusters to convey recognizable identities. Finally, in terms of opportunity, pageants provide contestants the occasion to engage in a cosmopolitan femininity, and speaking English is often a key component. Most importantly, for many contestants, the primary reason they compete is the hope of winning money in order to return to school, and especially, to continue learning English.

In the end, while participating in pageants is a positive experience for many young women, it does not provide the opportunity for upward and outward mobility that many seek. Unequal access to education, to elite varieties of language, as well as to preferred models of femininity, means that at the highest levels of national competition, only those contestants who have been raised in elite urban households have any chance of winning the crown. The irony then is that at the Miss World competition, the best contestant in all of Tanzania tends to find herself ranked very low, as her linguistic skills become commonplace there while other structural inequalities have resulted in her being much less prepared than competitors from other nations.

The book is informed theoretically and thematically by broad topics such as language ideologies, language in education, and language policy. I have attempted to write an accessible, engaging, and pertinent book, of wide interest to students and teachers of sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, anthropology, cultural and gender studies, and more. I hope readers enjoy it!

To find out more about Sabrina’s book take a look at our website

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