Recently Nia Sanchez, a Nevada resident, won the title of Miss USA 2014 and her response to the famous “final question” inspired a feminist critique that revealed the contentious historical issue of class in feminism. Jennifer Lee had a chance to talk with Sanchez for The Broad Side about her response.
My advice to feminists of the blogosphere is this — Nia Sanchez is what a feminist looks like.
The final question in the Miss USA contest is asked before the votes are tallied and a winner is picked. The question posed to Sanchez was, “Recently, Time Magazine revealed that 19% of U.S. undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault in college. Why has such a horrific epidemic been swept under the rug for so long and what can colleges do to combat this?”
She first addressed the reasons why a school would hide this crime by saying that bad press was something they would want to avoid. Then she added that she is a 4th degree black belt in a martial art, saying,“… I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself and I think that’s something we should start to implement for a lot of women.”
Confidence. Defend yourself. Implement. This answer was heard by more than the seven million viewers. Media coverage is a megaphone to the world and if you are lucky enough to get the opportunity you give it your best shot. Nia Sanchez seized the day. But, who is she anyway?
Surprisingly, many feminists thought that the 24-year-old Sanchez didn’t answer the question correctly, as if it is part of a standardized test. As a result, Sanchez, now Miss USA, found herself in the middle of a small firestorm.
One feminist journalist addressed Sanchez’s answer with an article condescendingly titled, “Sorry Miss USA, a Black Belt in tae kwon do is not the solution to campus rape.” This article hits on traditional themes that have been thrown around for decades in order to denigrate self-defense for women. One of these themes is that the sheer size and bulk of some men are no match for even the most seasoned martial arts expert. Huh? This antiquated idea ignores the deep lessons learned from self-defense about building confidence, sharpening intuition and changing ways of thinking about women’s strength.
Online feminist critiques snowballed into a predictably hostile Twitter pile-on that included personal insults and accusations that Sanchez just wasn’t smart. Some of the critical tweets reflected rigid mindsets claiming that Sanchez “bungled the answer” as if only one answer is correct. Some scolded her — “The answer to high rates of campus rape is simple: DON’T RAPE.” Name me one group throughout history who has willingly given up power? And this tweet makes no sense. “Let’s hope Miss Nevada uses her media tour to reiterate that teaching girls self-defense is NOT the best way to protest against assault.” Would anyone tell a man to teach boys not to learn how to defend themselves?
Why did the feminist criticism of Sanchez take place? The answer is class. Sanchez didn’t refer to herself as a feminist. She has no college degree. She writes for no academic journals. She has no byline. She was an outlier and she bravely spoke her words alone.
There is something different, yet familiar about Nia Sanchez. I wanted to learn more so I contacted her. I asked her opinion of the criticism leveled against her. She replied confidently, “… I was a little surprised by the reaction to my final question answer and was not expecting the reaction from some people. However, I do realize that not everyone is going to agree with the opinions that I have. I feel strongly that women can be empowered to learn self-defense in order to protect themselves in unexpected situations. I don’t see anything wrong with women taking action into their own hands and support it completely.”
Sanchez and self-defense
When I asked Sanchez about her childhood, she said, “After my parents divorced, I was raised by my dad. From as far back as I can remember he was teaching me to be aware of my surroundings and teaching me what to do in case a stranger tried to approach me. I think that as a woman we are all a little bit more cautious in certain situations, especially at night when we are walking alone. How I was raised with my martial arts background helps me to feel a little bit more prepared in those types of situations.”
Sanchez lived for a time in a women’s shelter with her mother. Women’s shelters were first opened in the 1960s when feminist ideas were becoming widespread. Feminists understood the need for women in crisis to have safe places to live so they could rebuild their lives.Clearly the experience affected her because Sanchez makes it a practice to volunteer in a woman’s shelter in Las Vegas, Nevada called Shade Tree.
During the early part of the women’s liberation movement feminists encouraged self-defense for women. My first self-defense class was in 1980 and my teacher, Marianna Kaufman, who is now 69-years-old, holds three black belts in various martial arts. When I told her of Sanchez’s answer, her initial reply was, “That’s wonderful.” She continued, “Studying martial arts does so much more than [teach] techniques, it builds your confidence in many areas of your life …. I wish it were part of school curriculum rather than just an option. It would be very nice and change lots of situations in the society if girls could have that option of studying it.”
I asked self-defense instructor and author Ellen Snortland to elaborate. She said, “I can’t think of a situation that a woman or girl wouldn’t find value having had a good self-defense background. The whole argument that women are not big enough to defend themselves is specious and not accurate. Sometimes, that’s true, just as it would be for men fighting each other. However, size is only one factor, not the determining factor.”
Beauty Contests and women
Feminists have famously protested beauty contests. As a society we are still analyzing the effects of gender and appearance with critiques of high-heeled shoes, make-up, revealing clothing, shaving leg hair, and artificially coloring gray hair.
I have always seen the beauty contest as the career building parallel that sports is for young men. Both are used by young people to pull themselves out of financially limited circumstances. Don’t believe me? Former beauty contest winners include news anchors Diane Sawyer and Gretchen Carlson, actresses Sharon Stone and Halle Berry, talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Kathie Lee Gifford. Because of her success in the Miss USA pageant, Sanchez now has a greater opportunity to join these career ranks.
I was impressed by Sanchez’s bravery during the verbal attacks on her because women and girls are still raised to please people. Snortland had a great insight into this: “We have girls who tell us that their desire to please, or their desire to not be called a bitch, goes way down once they learn how to defend themselves.”
Sanchez told me, “I see it as a huge blessing to feel confident if I’m ever alone, and I really hope to be able to use this year to teach some of the things I’ve learned to other women across the U.S.”
I applaud Sanchez for learning self-defense. She inherited some of the principles from the women’s movement and incorporated them into her life. It was a common feminist belief in the 1970s that there were no leaders in the women’s movement because every woman was a leader. So to the feminists of the blogosphere, I say this: Nia Sanchez is what feminism looks like.
Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming!. Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project.