“I have united all Chileans”: Miss Universe, Augusto Pinochet, and the Transnational Solidarity Movement

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:40 AM
River North Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Brenda Elsey, Hofstra University
Throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, women organized movements against authoritarian governments, and Chile was an important example of this historical process.  The strong channels of communication established between women’s organizations strengthened the transnational character of the opposition to the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  Women’s organizations broadened the discourse of human rights through their attention to rape, domestic violence, and poverty.  The political activities of these women challenged the Pinochet regime’s claims to have restored “traditional” values for the benefit of women.  Women activists skillfully mobilized popular culture in their struggle against the Pinochet regime.  Simultaneously, they confronted a formidable opponent.  The subtle strategies of the dictatorship’s cultural interventions contrasted with solidarity activists who sought to attract attention to their cause.  

This paper examines the relationship between popular culture and politics during the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship.  Scholarly research on the subject of human rights tends to focus on formal institutions, memory, and personal narrative.  Although less studied, cultural practices are powerful vehicles for the construction of political subjects.  An example is the Miss Universe pageant of 1987, which took place in the last year of military rule mandated by the 1980 constitution.  During intense political agitation, the pageant offered the dictatorship an opportunity to mobilize nationalism and showcase its achievements.  Held in Singapore, the luxurious set, costumes, and jewelry, created a fantastical world where all nations prospered and competed under equal conditions.  Commercials and product placement during the contest emphasized that freedoms could be won through consumption.  Furthermore, beauty contests sent the message that women could advance through competition and manipulation of one’s appearance.  An analysis of the Miss Universe pageant sheds light on the importance of popular culture in the contests over models of sexuality, citizenship, and class promoted by the Pinochet regime.