By Audrey Cerchiara
ON THE WEB, 26 November 2014
In Norah Shapiro’s documentary, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, a Tibetan-American teenager leaves home in Wisconsin, dons a bikini and high heels, and heads to Dharamshala, India, to vie for the crown of Miss Tibet. The film follows Tenzin Khecheo on an unusual search for her “Tibetan-ness” by way of a western-style beauty pageant staged by an eccentric impresario in the Indian region home to the exiled Tibetan government.
Personally, I have a certain reaction to beauty pageants that is totally clichéd feminist.
Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile surprises by delivering the unsavory aspects of pageantry with beauty and grace. One woman’s objectification is another woman’s celebration. Maybe. Instead of condemning the pretty parade, Shapiro uses the competition to illuminate the constant conflicts Khecheo must navigate as she tries to incorporate her Tibetan heritage into her American life. Is it awful to judge a woman based on her bikini, or is it awful to judge a woman for wearing a bikini? Is it neither, or both?
The flashy pageant visionary, Lobsang Wangyal, mentors the contestants on Tibetan traditions and morals, as well as catwalks. In add[ition to] the usual swimsuit competition, the pageant includes workshops for the contestants where they learn traditional Tibetan crafts like cooking momos, dancing, and calligraphy. Part photoshoot and part pilgrimage, Khecheo is forced to confront the many contradictions of her identity as she becomes more and more invested in the crown: a sparkling diadem cum political platform — a tiara to protest the occupation of Tibet. There are Tibetan traditions that touch Khecheo, but there are also “Tibetan stereotypes of goodness” that seem far removed from both fierce Tibetan activists and fashionable Tibetan-American teenagers:
Sometimes I’m just questioning whether or not I’m really Tibetan or not because there are all these other people who have done so much more for their country — I haven’t and I just don’t feel like I’m doing enough.
Like the film, rather than shy away from the conflicts that arise between west and east, spirituality and materiality, traditionalism and modernism, Khecheo tries to find how these contradictions can fit together. Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile offers a unique roots-finding story that offers insight into the translation of tradition and cultural identity, a beautiful, but precarious balance.