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It Ain’t No Beauty Pageant

Cara Mund
Cara Mund, Miss America 2018, on a USO visit to Fort Meade in January 2018.
Photo courtesy the Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office.

My first reaction upon hearing that America’s most famous beauty contest no longer considers itself a beauty contest was skepticism. My second was cynicism.

So I was surprised when, within 24 hours of getting the news, I came around to the view that Miss America’s organizers are not only doing the right thing, but they are likely moving in the only direction that makes sense to try to keep their event relevant.

Gretchen Carlson, who serves as chairwoman of Miss America’s board of directors, announced on “Good Morning, America” that the event will be dropping its swimsuit competition and generally shifting away from physical beauty. The evening gown competition, while not removed entirely, will also be revamped. “We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition,” Carlson said.

This change is not quite overnight, but close; the next Miss America pageant – or rather, competition – will take place on Sept. 9.

Of course, to a lot of people the argument that Miss America is not about a contestant’s appearance will ring about as true as a claim that patrons of the local “breastaraunt” are there to enjoy the Buffalo wings and big-screen TVs. And that was my initial thought, too. With ratings across network TV spiraling downward, and Miss America’s descending with them, the organizers seemed to be self-destructively removing the main reason most viewers tune in.

And the fact that the announcement came from Carlson, Miss America 1989, elicited the cynical thought that it is no surprise when a woman now in her 50s decides that we should not focus unduly on the physical beauty of women in their 20s. Where you stand, as they saying known as Miles’ Law goes, depends upon where you sit.

So at first blush, the new direction of the event seems to doom it to irrelevance. But then again, wasn’t it already heading in that direction? Miss America was created to exploit the ideal – or myth – of virgin female beauty in order to market an often-seedy South Jersey seaside resort town. Atlantic City still needs all the help it can get, but every other part of that premise is discredited in our society today. We at least claim not to judge women based on their sexual history, nor do we want to attribute their value to their outward appearance.

The assertion that Miss America must be unmarried in order to fulfill her yearlong obligations as titleholder is ludicrous in an era of professional women. Year after year, contestants talk about their empathy for children, yet none of them actually has a child. Why can’t a young mother represent her generation as well as someone who is childless? Why can’t a woman who is married do so?

And for that matter, why must Miss America be female at all? What does that even mean in a society where people’s gender identities can be recognized as fluid or nonbinary or nonconforming? To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, the best way to stop denigrating women is to stop denigrating women. Wouldn’t we be promoting equality by positioning a historically female title as something to which boys and men might want to aspire?

Maybe the only relevant criterion for the competition is that a contestant be between the ages of 17 and 25, as it is today. Virtually nobody at that age (apart from professional performers and athletes) has come anywhere near accomplishing most of what they will achieve in life; we are evaluating promise and potential, not results. Anyone who has achieved true wisdom at those ages should be competing for sainthood, not Miss America.

Kelley Johnson, the Miss Colorado who performed a monologue about her work as a nurse in the 2016 Miss America talent competition, made me see what a future version of Miss America could be. She shared her experience in a way that could inspire other people her age and younger to see their own potential. Their appearance would not matter. Their gender would not matter.

This is also hardly the first time Miss America has changed its approach. The first 17 years did not include a talent competition. African-American contestants explicitly were not allowed until 1950, and none actually competed until 1971. In the years Miss America aired on the cable channel TLC, the broadcast had a reality show feel. As Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998 and a current board member, observed, “Look, Miss America has tried lots of gimmicks in the past, and some of them connect while others don’t.”

I never paid much attention to Miss America or other beauty pageants myself. Mostly, I found them pretty dull, apart from some portions of the talent competitions. I was also repelled by the treatment Vanessa Williams received when the first black Miss America was forced to relinquish her title after Penthouse magazine said it would publish unauthorized nude photos of her.

Williams and I both came from the Bronx, so I felt some hometown loyalty; regardless, the naked hypocrisy over her nakedness was too much to take. The pageant was arguing that only it had the right to commercially exploit her looks, not Williams herself – and she wasn’t even the one trying to do so. It took about three decades too long for the pageant to finally apologize to her. Williams herself handled the situation with great dignity and resilience, and she certainly did not seem to suffer professionally for it.

Some of the criticism of Carlson’s announcement had the same nasty whiff of misogyny, however. In the Daily Mail, Piers Morgan wrote of the change: “I’ve got some news for you, Gretchen: nobody on the entire planet cares what comes out of the mouths of Miss America contestants unless they say something so dumb it makes us laugh out loud.” I was happy I came around to Carlson’s point of view, because I get worried any time I find myself on the same side of an argument as Piers Morgan.

Maybe there is a prosperous future for Miss America and maybe there isn’t. The whole affair is approaching 100 years old, and America has changed a lot in the past century. Miss America has to change too to be relevant to our time. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Carlson heads the organization’s first all-female leadership team, a purposeful move to pivot away from previous scandals.

Wisdom comes with age, and maybe it takes a former Miss America, or several, to know how to create a healthy competition for our children and grandchildren. I wish them good luck.

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