But on Friday night, as the Uncasville native filed into the ballroom of a downtown Washington hotel dressed in a long white gown and elbow-length gloves, she was filling a more unexpected role: a princess.
”Yes, the feminist does enjoy dressing up,” joked Malerba, who is a member of the Mohegan Tribe.
As Connecticut's Cherry Blossom Princess, Malerba was the Nutmeg State's representative in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, a 74-year-old celebration of the blossoming of the pink-budded trees and of American and Japanese friendship.
The princesses are chosen by their respective state societies--social and networking clubs that allow home state people to keep in touch--to attend a week of educational and networking events. This year the group visited the Japanese and Lithuanian ambassadors' homes, watched a Russian fashion show, met with women in the military and heard from a panel of women in government.
On Saturday, the princesses walked in the Cherry Blossom Parade, escorted by Naval Academy cadets carrying their home states' flags.
The program maintains a somewhat old-fashioned feel, which culminated in Friday evening's Grand Ball, a cultural celebration-meets-debutante ball complete with sushi buffet, a Color Guard salute and a princess procession. The princesses even have a handler, Princess Chair Trippi Penland, whose objective “is to take care of all my chickadees,” as Penland put it.
Every princess-style pageant in the country claims it "isn't really a beauty pageant. It's an opportunity … to represent your state, to experience what it means to be an ambassador of your state culture and your state values." So that's nothing new or different from hundreds of other pageants.
So Malerba "dressed in a long white gown and elbow-length gloves." She "walked in the Cherry Blossom Parade, escorted by Naval Academy cadets." She participated in "a cultural celebration-meets-debutante ball complete with sushi buffet, a Color Guard salute and a princess procession." And she even has a handler in case she does something un-princess-like.
All these are classic examples of male-orchestrated femininity. They're designed to present women as pure, chaste objects of veneration--with the emphasis on "objects." Malerba may proclaim herself a feminist, but it isn't obvious that her participation in the pageant does anything to help women or Indians.
One can find many feminist critiques of princess pageants. Here are a couple of them, from outside and inside the pageant world: The Miss USA Pageant: How Far We Haven't Come and Confessions of a Beauty Pageant Drop-Out.
For more on Indians and beauty pageants, see Beauty Pageant = Female Pride and Pageant Winner Has Talent, Message. For more on the subject in general, see Indian Women as Sex Objects.