Appropriating the (in)appropriate: rethinking pageants, contests and the anthropology of emblems
Location B
Date and Time 8th December, 2008 at 13:30


Nick Long (Cambridge University)
Sharyn Davies (Auckland University of Technology)
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Short Abstract

This panel investigates the relationships created when someone or something strives to be, and then is, appropriated as emblematic of another. It invites studies of appropriation in such diverse contexts as beauty pageants, advertising, 'model citizens', fashion, and the diplomatic service.

Long Abstract

Powerful symbols are created when bodies and persons are appropriated as emblematic of a nation, community or institution's values and aspirations. Although many studies have unpicked and critiqued the ideologies condensed in such symbols, they typically take for granted the processes by which someone or something is appropriated as symbol or emblem. This panel seeks to revitalise the field through the cross-cultural analysis of processes of appropriation in such diverse contexts as beauty pageants and fashion shows, model citizen awards, advertising and diplomacy.

Often associated with agency and creativity, appropriation can also involve more negative issues such as perceived inappropriateness, copying, or inauthenticity. The panel therefore invites papers exploring the relationships between those striving to be appropriated, those undertaking acts of appropriation, and the acts' audiences. It also asks what processes are instigated by appropriations. To what extent do appropriated entities become 'owned' by those they are representing? To what extent do they exhibit 'ownership' over what they symbolise? What happens when their exposure leads them to be (re)appropriated in quite unexpected and unforeseen ways?

A final aim is to explore ethnographically the practices by which social actors render themselves 'appropriate' for appropriation, and how alternative, 'inappropriate', practices might be employed in acts of cynicism, subversion or satire. These practices themselves often involve the appropriation of certain subjects, objects and relations (e.g. clothing, demeanour, tuition) and the panel invites papers that interrogate the often fraught connections between such micro-level practices and the actor's capacity - and desire - to be appropriated.

Discussant: Dr Matei Candea

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Appropriating the Feminine: A Queer Muslim Fashion Parade

Author: Sharyn Davies (Auckland University of Technology)

Short Abstract

This paper critically engages notions of femininity, showing ways in which trans subjects appropriate feminine Muslim ideals. The ethnographic example used is of a male transgender fashion parade in Indonesia, where contestants had been on the hajj to Mecca and wore feminine Muslim attire.


The increasing popularity of Muslim attire is evident in numerous cross-cultural contexts. For instance, there is now an 'Islamic Barbie' named Razanne who comes complete with a variety of outfits suited to the numerous activities she undertakes. In Indonesia, the popularity of Muslim attire (busana Muslima) is seen in the growing number of women adopting the veil and other Islamic accoutrements. An interesting proliferation in the adoption of busana Muslimah is also occurring in the male transgender (waria) community. A striking example of this proliferation is evident at public events such as fashion parades and beauty contests. The departure point for this paper, then, is a waria fashion parade that took place in February 2007. To be eligible to compete, contestants had to have been on the pilgrimage to Mecca and they were required to wear busana Muslima. Unlike other waria fashion parades, which typically celebrate Western 'hyper' femininity (e.g. short skirts, low-cut tops and overt sexiness), this fashion parade rewarded the presentation of a demure, modest and pious self. This paper thus examines processes of appropriation waria undertake in representations of feminine Muslim selves, The paper also explores notions of agency, creativity, and ownership and addresses audience reactions to the parade and claims of inappropriateness and inauthenticity.

MissAppropriate: Queering the Queens in Colombia.

Author: Chloe Rutter-Jensen (Universidad de los Andes)

Short Abstract

This paper examines the representation of beauty queens and beauty pageants in Colombia to denaturalize the discourses of heteronormativity and national identity that surround these events.


This panel asks how "alternative practices of appropriation are employed in acts of cynicism, subversion or satire." The heteronormative beauty pageant body attempts to erase the difference between representing beauty and representing a model citizen. Yet, the queer body interrogates discourses both of beauty and of the model citizen or of national belonging. These are particularly vexed notions in Colombia where the average citizen does not meet the international standards of occidental beauty in size, shape, or racial formation. Furthermore, the model citizen according to the beauty pageant ignores the rural cultural base of the country and establishes a cosmopolitan city body as the ideal. This paper examines the practice of appropriating the female heterosexual beauty queen from regional and national beauty pageants and the ways in which it is expressed on the queer body in Colombia. I attempt to deconstruct the artificiality of the 'natural' woman to debate identities of gender and sexuality in the Colombian context. To study the traffic of the ideal woman produced in beauty pageants I affirm first that that female beauty queens are in fact women dressed in drag. If such is the case, then for example, the male drag queen body becomes an authentic site to study discourses of female beauty. Second, using feminist visual culture studies I examine the emergence of the queen as a cultural and visual text that circulates in an economy of national identity in which we can propose distinct ways of 'seeing' the body.

Appropriating modernity: beauty pageants and spectacle in a Thai Buddhist monastery

Author: Joanna Cook (UCL)

Short Abstract

Based on anthropological research in northern Thailand, this ethnographic study of a religious festival investigates questions of gendered performance, spectacle and modernity in the context of beauty pageants and monastic practice.


Analyzing a three-day religious festival held in a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand, I examine contrastive performances of gendered modernity and religious spectacle. I focus on two events: a 'Miss Buddha Dhamma Beauty Pageant' and a chorus-line watched by monastics and laity within the monastic compound. I argue that such spectacles appropriate the standards of modernity linked to cosmopolitan experience and national progress. The chorus-line and beauty contest present the images of sexualized and independent modern women in command of the concomitant joys of autonomy and independence.

The location of the chorus-line and beauty pageant in the monastery, a sacred space home to 200 celibate renouncers, raises important questions about appropriate display, spectacle and appropriation. The images that they present are in stark contrast to the principles of renunciatory self-fashioning embodied by monastics. What are the implications of celibate monks and nuns witnessing such a display of sexualized and gendered modernity so often appropriated in the presentation of national development, cosmopolitanism and commodity promotion? Is it the case that, in more ways than one, monastics are left on the outskirts, to view from afar a process of modernization in which they can hope to have no part? I argue that monastics' passive viewing of the spectacle of festivities may itself be viewed as a performance of appropriate modernity, one that has strong resonance with Thai national identity, albeit in direct contrast to those displayed through the performances of the dancers.

The Appropriation of the Improper

Author: Pedro Germano Leal (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte)

Short Abstract

This paper traces the original concept of “emblem” and examines the processes and social implications of its commercial appropriation in contemporary Brazil.


Etymologically speaking, the modern use of the term "emblem" derives from the renaissance and baroque "emblema" a literary genre composed of a motto, a picture (usually an engraving), and a poetical epigram. The meaning was associated with "common-place" or "main symbol of a phenomenon, person or thing". There is a close likeness between contemporary applications of company logotypes and trademarks in Brazil, and early modern "devises" and "impresas". Yet, instead of the philosophical, mystical, or very personal content of the humanist maxims that accompanied the renaissance image - by which the bearer wished to be remembered or recognized - the contemporary symbols discard the axiom and instead emphasize the slogan concept, together with its abstract value of "better", "prettier", or "exclusive", "VIP", and "original". The bearer scope moves from the ancient moral/individual attributes of the symbol to the commercial/classist appeal that buttresses our consumer society. These arbitrary symbols become tools of domination, where those lacking the buying-power associated with status and acceptability tend to make every effort to appropriate these symbols as their own. A case in point is young people in poor neighbourhoods in Brazil, who dress up in "gangsta" style to affirm an identity associated with the ideals of power and status. The forbidding price tag attached to expensive logos, however, generates a contradiction which some confront by creating their own prototypes that can sometimes idolize a criminal image and perhaps even glorify unlawful appropriation of the desired object/symbol, perhaps an affront to the symbols of domination.

"The thinking woman's Legolas": appropriations of an online parody

Author: Yadana Saw (University of Canterbury)

Short Abstract

The architecture of the online readily enables dynamic communication practices such as instantaneousness, searchability, and communitas of discourse, which resonates in a range of affirmative, contradictory and unforeseen intertextual potentialities. These dynamic potentialities are also revealed within the dialogics of online and offline interactions.


Before his international success in Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie found unlikely fame as a movie extra in Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. Onscreen for the less than three seconds, McKenzie's non-speaking elf role was subsequently named Figwit (acronym for Frodo Is Great…Who is THAT?!?) by a group of online Lord of the Rings female fans. Dubbed "the thinking woman's Legolas", Figwit was created as a parody to lampoon the "swooning, drooling girly" fans who participated in the online LOTR movie fandom and to differentiate his more discerning creators. The creation, dissemination, different reproductions, and eventual atrophy of the Figwit phenomenon provides insight into the potentialities of online discourse and into the dialogic that exists between the online and offline. The architecture of the online readily enables dynamic communication practices such as re-editing, searchability, archivability etc (boyd 2007). Figwit's evolution from a message board 'in-joke' to his ironic recasting as a genuine celebrity heartthrob with dedicated websites also illustrates the varieties of authorship and intertextual discourses that exist online. Beyond online LOTR fandom, offline media interest also disregarded the parody intent of Figwit and his creators, casting the phenomenon within the dominant narratives of adulatory female fandom. Figwit was also conventionally commodified by movie industry interests, appearing in the final instalment of LOTR and in associated merchandising. This paper explores how ideal, affirmative, contradictory and unforeseen potentialities can emerge within online discourses and in online-offline conversations.

"You Thought We Wouldn't Notice" : Graffiti as Art Form, Vandalism, Campaign and Culture.

Author: Dianne Rodger (University of Adelaide)

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper uses the example of the utilization of graffiti imagery in marketing campaigns to analyze the complex relationships involved in the struggle to define what graffiti actually is and how it should be appropriately used in different cultural contexts.


This paper examines rights over the use of imagery associated with graffiti and is based upon ethnographic studies carried out amongst the hip hop communities of Adelaide and Melbourne. It explores these rights in relation to rifts within the graffiti writing community itself, in particular the emerging division between more traditional graffiti writers and those who employ the 'stenciling' technique. These divisions are typically based upon disjunctures between understandings of graffiti as illegal subculture and legitimated art form respectively. Graffiti and hip hop artists have often argued that the illegal nature of graffiti writing makes it impervious to the dangers of commercialization often associated with other cultural forms and therefore a less likely target for exploitation and wrongful appropriation. However, numerous recent Australian marketing campaigns have utilized graffiti as a selling point, using graffiti style fonts and imagery or settings with graffiti backdrops, both real life and manufactured, a practice that has been vigorously criticized by members of the hip hop community. This paper avoids the depiction of graffiti as a static cultural package which is formed and then appropriated by advertisers. Instead, it advocates a dialogical approach to the analysis of relationships between different graffiti artists and commercial agents in order to understand how multiple actors struggle to define what graffiti actually is and how it should be appropriately used in different cultural contexts.

On having achieved appropriation: the anak berprestasi of Kepulauan Riau, Indonesia

Author: Nick Long (Cambridge University)

Short Abstract

This paper critically examines the experiences of young Indonesians appropriated as emblems of their newly seceded province, with particular attention to their changing understandings of self, body, state and region.


Anak berprestasi is the Indonesian term used to describe a young person who has accrued many victories in competitive 'achievement-oriented' events, in sectors as wide-ranging as English debating, Qur'an recitation, and beauty pageants.

In the newly seceded province of Kepulauan Riau, many such youngsters are publicly appropriated as emblematic of policy-makers' hopes for a post-secession utopia. They are cast as role models to inspire future achievement, and also touted as concrete evidence of what Kepulauan Riau can achieve. With a 'human resources crisis' a prime factor spurring political secession, anak berprestasi are crucial confirmation that the province's devolution is having the desired effects.

This paper explores the lives and experiences of a number of anak berprestasi following their appropriation as emblems of their province. Their stories point to complex and fraught relationships between their own subjectivity and their understanding of the region they are supposedly emblematic of. Drawing on theoretical interventions in the study of identity, such as Sartre's model of 'bad faith', and Tarde's notion of 'mutual possession', the paper traces the vacillating relationships between province and emblem. In doing so, it moves beyond conventional approaches that examine appropriated persons as 'texts' of state discourse, foregrounding the complex and even devastating consequences of the appropriations for which they once so enthusiastically strove.