Suitability for the job

This is a somewhat delicate subject for a man to deal with, so I shall tread carefully. But it has to be reported that a complaint has been made to an employment tribunal in France of discrimination and so breach of employment law. It has been made against the organisers of the ‘Miss France’ beauty pageant. The complaint is that they have selected contestants based on their appearance and marital status. Who knew?

According to reports in the French press, three Miss France contestants who failed to make the grade have joined a leading feminist group in starting this action.  Osez-le-Féminisme (Dare to be Feminist) said it had filed a complaint with an employment tribunal on behalf of the former contestants. They said that they had done this because they had not been able to succeed in getting Miss France banned in any other way - presumably because there was no general public support for their argument.

The plaintiffs allege that the organisers are breaching French employment law by forcing aspiring beauty queens to be more than 1.70 metres tall, single, and "representative of beauty”. They have an obligation not to gain weight or change hairstyle and are not allowed to have tattoos or piercings other than in their ears. Candidates must also never have been married or had children.

Previous candidates have been eliminated or, in the case of Miss France 2007, had the crown taken away, for doing things “contrary to good morals, to public order or the spirit of the contest, which is based on the values of elegance”. The three plaintiffs, who have not been named, were excluded from recent contests for smoking in public, being too short or having posed for nude pictures.

Despite decades of complaints that Miss France - which celebrate its 100 birthday last year - is a sexist leftover of a bygone era that reinforces gender stereotypes, it remains extremely popular among the French (just, as I seem to remember, Miss Italy is amongst the Italian public). It draws audiences of millions for the final national vote on their main TV channel, TF1, every December.

Organiser insist that the show has moved with the times: last year the jury was all female. They now give marks for personality and general knowledge as well as looks. In 2020 questions included “which British royals were the parents of Archie?” and “what took place in France on June 6, 1944?”. So then a knowledge of British royalty and the Normandy landings were essential for contestants. Those contestants however continue to parade in swimsuits and ballgowns.

Last year, France's Higher Council of Gender Equality, strongly criticised the contest and, even more so, a number of reality TV shows, saying they reinforced cliches of "dominating Don Juans" and "bimbo temptresses”. Alyssa Ahrabare, head of ‘Dare to be Feminist’ said: “For all our protests every year against this vehicle for sexist values, nothing changes...We have decided to use the law to advance the cause of women.” The case is likely to depend on whether judges recognise Miss France contestants as employees of the organisers and the TV company.

Although contestants do not sign an employment contract, a 2013 ruling along similar lines regarding a Mister France contestant suggests support for the claim that organisers can still be sued for discrimination regarding "morals, age, family status or physical appearance”. Sylvie Tellier, the 2002 Miss France who runs the organisation, recently insisted the contest promoted rather than damaged women’s rights. She said: “You can parade in a swimsuit and be a feminist. We are no longer in the days of ‘look beautiful and shut up'.”

But if the standards demanded by ‘Dare to be Feminist’ are to be applied, this is, we must assume, because they are of universal application. Obviously then they cannot just be confined to beauty pageants or reality TV shows. So how can it be for instance that the film industry is still largely based on how actors look? I’m not sure that George Clooney is the best actor in the world – I’ve never seen his Hamlet - but he’s certainly amongst the highest paid, which I suspect may have something to do with his looks. Not for nothing is he known by his fans as ‘Gorgeous George’. And I suspect that such blatant sexism is also a factor enabling him to advertise Nespresso coffee machines in luxurious locations.

And of course almost every time a film comes out based on real life events the, in real life, rather ordinary-looking subjects of the film are, instead, portrayed by actors who are far from ordinary-looking. How will the film make lots of money in the absence of at least some well-known and rather attractive stars? Could we instead insist upon being plain as a condition of being allowed in front of a film or television camera? How can the increasing demand for the casting of actors of 'appropriate' ethnicities for parts in plays and films be justified?

How far do we take this? Every year coaches decide upon whom they will hire as rugby players based largely upon age and physical appearance. Typically, players retire whilst in their early 30s when they are no longer fast or strong enough: a rugby player without a lot of muscle is a contradiction in terms. The average height of a pro rugby player these days is over 6ft 1” (186 cm) and the weight is 16 st 3 lbs (103 kg). And It’s similar with most games: to do well, you need the right physical qualities, be it strength, speed or agility.  All of these entail a certain physical appearance and being not too old - with the exception of some equestrian sports where the horse is the one doing the work.

I can understand that, for normal jobs in society, not discriminating against people based on looks or age but simply requiring an ability to do the work required, is the best approach. I’m not convinced that it would be wise to choose a lawyer based mainly on looks. An ability to analyse legal problems is also a help. But I’m not sure that such non-discrimination should be regarded as a universal criterion. One could argue that if a group of people want to take part in Miss France or Mister France, then there is no reason to stop them. They have after all self-defined their job as being capable of answering rather straightforward general knowledge questions but, mainly, of being good-looking.

Many women claiming to be feminists also want us to accept that they can do what they want in terms of displaying their bodies however and whenever they choose, without expecting to provoke a response from any nearby males. After all, they say, they are their bodies and so they are simply showing their empowerment.

At least I think that’s the argument, although it does seem to include the idea, put forward by the ‘Women’s Collective’, that sex-workers are feminists because in engaging in that industry they too are demonstrating their emancipation. Putting it as delicately as I can, however, it surely comes with the territory that most of their clients would be looking for an attractive sex-worker with whom to spend their time - a sort of mini beauty pageant - which all seems to contradict the stance taken in France, by the no doubt well-meaning feminists there. 

I think that this all demonstrates that widely acceptable and consistent rules on such difficult to categorise topics are rather hard to find. This is hardly surprising, but the result is not untypical of an increasing wish to force one group’s view of morality onto others.

Whilst supporting the overarching aim of putting men and women on an equal footing, I’m not convinced that using employment laws to ban something
in which many women apparently want to be involved is a very wise move. I cannot see that it will advance the cause of feminism. It speaks more of a rather blinkered group wanting to ban the actions of those who, in their opinion, ‘betray the sisterhood’. And, in order to achieve it they are weaponising what may be the unintended consequences of laws never discussed by legislators in that context, and which therefore cannot be said to have the public’s assent.

Paul J Buckingham

22 November 2021

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy