Can Miss America Survive 100 More Years?

·22 min read
Miss America - Credit: Jessica Hill/AP
Miss America - Credit: Jessica Hill/AP

When I was little, I used to make my Barbies participate in the Miss America pageant. I’d dress them up in evening gowns and parade them down the hall one-by-one, making them do the talent competition and the interviews. At the end, my mother, a diehard fan of the competition, would judge. (She had a preference for blondes in tasteful evening wear.) I did this until an embarrassingly old age, forcing family members to witness this process and listen to me belt out “Tomorrow” while making Miss Kentucky do a split (my mother would take points off if the dolls went commando). And every September, my mom and I would watch the competition together, casting votes for our favorites and predicting the winners and fantasizing about what gown we would wear, what social issue we would tout, what talent we would perform, if it were us being crowned the totem of American femininity on that stage.

I was eight or nine at the time — old enough to be acutely aware that I would probably never become Miss America (as my mother has never failed to point out, I am pathologically averse to walking like a normal human or smiling), but not yet old enough to be aware of the cultural baggage associated with the pageant and what it meant. I didn’t know, at that time, about the problematic implications of beauty pageants, and of Miss America specifically: that it had a baked-in history of racism, that it had spawned countless eating disorders and body image issues, that it had been founded in response to women winning the right to vote the year before and the “sashes” were intended to be a direct fuck you to the sash-wearing suffragettes who had fought for this right. I had yet to be initiated into the cult of womanhood or become acquainted with its pressures, or to learn firsthand what historian Roxana Baxdall famously said, that “every moment of a woman’s life is a walking Miss America contest.” All I knew was that I wanted to be Miss America, that I should want to be Miss America, and that it was one of the highest honors a a woman could achieve.

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More than 20 years and countless gender-studies course credits later, I no longer hold that aspiration (nor could I at this point: I am significantly past the age cutoff of 26, and I still struggle with the same Resting Bitch Face and lack of social and/or gross motor skills that are required for the gig). But I do still think Miss America matters, albeit in a far different way than it may have previously, and I wanted to see if it would continue to yield significance to young women today. So along with my mother, the longtime Miss America fan, I traveled to the Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Uncasville, Connecticut, for Miss America’s 100th anniversary celebration.

My goal had initially been to determine the future of the organization and whether it could or would maintain relevancy in the coming years. But this was quickly replaced by a new goal: to not get Covid-19. Miss Maine, Mariah Laroque, had tested positive the Sunday prior to the preliminaries, and had been forced to withdraw from the competition (she later won Miss Congeniality at the finals in absentia). It is not a requirement for Miss America competitors to be vaccinated, though a rep for Mohegan Sun tells me that 94 percent of them are. “As candidates come from all areas of the country, MAO respects and supports their individual rights and the varying levels of regulation in each state,” the rep said in a statement. But while proof of vaccination and/or a negative Covid test were required for the final night of competition, and the contestants wore masks during press interviews and onstage, masks were not mandatory at many of the packed events, despite the climbing rates of Omicron on the East Coast.

Another goal of mine was to avoid being overly scrutinized by my mother for my physical appearance, something that I should’ve predicted would have been magnified by the presence of sleek, flawlessly coiffed, expertly contoured state winners and Miss Teens swanning around the Mohegan Sun campus. I had assumed by the time I hit my thirties, my mom would’ve made peace with the fact that she had raised a grubby, ink-stained, cat hair-covered homunculus and not a poised and accomplished pageant contestant, but apparently she had not, as she almost immediately started hectoring me to wear my hair down and straightened and appraised my outfits before I went outside to report. “You look like a contestant,” she proudly (and lyingly) proclaimed after I chose an outfit that passed muster one evening. Even though I wasn’t competing, I had inadvertently brought along my own pageant coach.

Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun
Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

The Miss America competition is at something of a turning point. It is no longer officially referred to as a “pageant,” and the competitors are now known as “candidates,” though this language is not deeply codified, and many of the attendees switch casually between both. Having previously faced criticism for inflating its scholarship awards, it has also upped the ante in that regard, doubling the prize to $100,000 (though ironically, despite its emphasis on academic achievement, Miss America winners are too busy in the year following their win to actively attend school, says Margot Mifflin, author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood). The competition now ostensibly also no longer judges competitors according to their physical appearance, though it’s an open question as to whether that is actually the case: while there does appear to be slightly more body diversity among this year’s crop of contestants, it’s hard not to notice they are still overwhelmingly white, slender, and conventionally attractive.

Diversity has historically been something of a sore point for the organization, which famously originally mandated that contestants be “of good health and of the white race”; this was implemented until at least 1948, and Miss America wouldn’t officially become integrated until 1970, when Miss Iowa Cheryl Browne became the first Black competitor. (Arguably the most famous Miss America, Vanessa Williams, became the first Black woman to win the crown in 1983 before being stripped of it after unauthorized nude photos of her were published in Penthouse; decades later, the organization issued her a public apology.) Since then, it has made an effort to become more diverse, crowning many Black winners over the past few decades and the first Indian American winner, Nina Davuluri, in 2014. Yet even that historic win was marred by people inundating Davuluri with xenophobic harassment, inaccurately calling her a “Muslim” and a terrorist.

This also marks the second year Miss America has been held at Mohegan Sun rather than in Atlantic City, its traditional home. The move to Mohegan Sun followed years of internal turmoil in the organization, including the leak of internal communications between pageant leaders and then-CEO Sam Haskell, including body-shaming comments about former competitors, which led to Haskell’s resignation. Former Miss America and Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson succeeded as chairperson of the organization with the express goal of moving the competition into the 21st century, eliminating the swimsuit competition before resigning in the spring of 2019.

Viewership numbers have been steadily declining since as early as the 1960s, says Mifflin. Yet with its transition to Peacock, this celebration marks the first year that Miss America was not broadcast on network television. The organization has aggressively tried to garner a younger audience, to mixed effect. “People my age don’t really know what Miss America is,” Emma Broyles, Miss Alaska, a petite young woman whose platform is building community through Special Olympics, tells me the day before the competition.

When I speak to the Miss America Organization’s current president and CEO, Shantel Krebs, a former Miss South Dakota and South Dakota secretary of state with a fondness for jewel-toned power suits and a harried air, she positions the competition’s move to streaming as a conscious decision on their part. “This is how we compete in the world we live in,” she says. “For me, this is where I’m moving forward and it’s only going to continue to push that way. The cord cutters is done. We have to look to the future of where young people are, and young kids aren’t watching TV. They’re on their phones. That’s the audience we’re going after, is your age group.”

But Mifflin is skeptical of that explanation: “I think it’s most likely they cant get the sponsorship and this is what they have to default to,” she says. On Miss America message boards, rumors also percolate that the competition was unable to procure hosts until the very last minute, which is somewhat confirmed by the fact that a press release went out announcing former Miss Americas Davuluri and Ericka Dunlap as hosts the day before the competition.

In keeping with this mission of trying to reach zoomers and millennials, Miss America partnered with TikTok to create videos for contestants to describe their social platform initiatives; when superlatives were given out during the preliminaries, Broyles says she was named “Most Likely to Turn In Her TikTok Assignment Late.” Some candidates have forged strong social media brands even prior to competing in Miss America, most notably Miss Utah, a.k.a. Sasha Sloan, a chirpy Brigham Young University student who has garnered 1.3 million TikTok followers — far more than the Miss America TikTok account itself — with her pageant content, Harry Potter cosplays, and refugee advocacy work. From the start of the competition, Sloan was favored to enter the top 10, in large part due to the brand she’d built on social media. (She did ultimately make the top 10, but did not ascend to the top 5.)

By far the biggest change, however, has been the elimination of the swimsuit competition, which has long been a sticking point for feminist critics of the pageant. Many of the contestants, such as former Miss America winner Camille Schrier, applaud the decision to eliminate swimsuit, and say they would not have entered the competition had it still been a requirement. “I’m someone that has struggled with an eating disorder in my life and has struggled with body dysmorphia. And as much as I admired Miss America, I felt like I couldn’t do that because I didn’t think that I would be able to enter that situation in a way that would remain healthy for me mentally and physically,” Schrier, a hyper-poised pharmaceutical student who performed a chemistry experiment as her talent when she competed in 2019, tells me. “I didn’t want to be judged for what I looked like anymore. I was sick of myself judging myself for what I looked like.”

Since the swimsuit competition was nixed, there has been a “damaging divide” in the pageant world between those who wanted to keep it and those who didn’t, says Mifflin. When I ask Krebs about this chasm, she basically denies that it exists, and that state leaders are “fully behind” the change. But that does not seem to be entirely true. “I wish they’d bring it back,” says Sherry Hanson, director of the Miss Fort Worth competition, when I speak to her outside of a Miss America Organization-sanctioned breakfast. “I think it gives some interest to the show, I guess. And it’s not to have skinny girls, it’s to have girls show they have the training and can take care of themselves, I guess…. I feel like if they get to too much talking on stage it can get too boring.”

With the swimsuit competition gone and the “pageant” nomenclature struck from Miss America’s marketing materials, it does leave one to wonder: if Miss America is not a pageant, then what, exactly, is it? “It pits women against each other” for monetary rewards, Mifflin says. “It has never prepared them for competing in a world of men. And it begs the question: why do this to women when men don’t have to do this?” The competitive aspect of the pageant also feels inherently regressive in a way that the organization can never quite manage to overcome. In watching the preliminaries with my mother, for instance, despite the dictum to disregard candidates’ personal appearances, I started absentmindedly jotting down notes about the competitors’ bodies, hairstyles, and wardrobes.

Part of me was grossed out by myself that I could harbor such criticisms of my fellow women; but a larger part of me knew that the very format of the Miss America competition — and by extension, the patriarchy in general — encouraged those type of thoughts in the first place. It was as if I was once again parading around a kitchen island with my Barbies, my mom disqualifying contestants for showing too much skin or dressing too flashily, a crystallization of Baxdall’s quote: my playtime with my Barbies had been a dress rehearsal for a lifetime of being a woman, constantly juggling between serving as judge and competitor.

In the leadup to the Miss America competition, the question guiding most of the coverage of the event was this: In a post-#MeToo climate where the organization must always bridge the gap between its more old-school fan base and the politically active zoomers it seeks to recruit, does Miss America have any hope of a future? This question is salient not just in terms of building an audience for the competition, but also in terms of contestant recruitment: after all, the average influencer can earn a great deal more money through a well-timed brand deal than the average state finalist. Why waste the time and money perfecting a talent or practicing walking in heels or buying a hideous bedazzled pantsuit when you can pay for your college tuition by posting sponcon on Instagram?

Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun
Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

In addition to the elimination of the swimsuit category, there are signs that the organization is heading in the direction of catching up to a version of what 21st-century womanhood looks like. For starters, though I had been told by Mifflin that the organization is hesitant to self-identify as feminist, I found no such hesitancy among the current competitors I spoke to as well as Schrier. “I think it’s funny because there might be some hesitation, like, ‘Oh, we can’t confirm that it’s a feminist organization,'” Miss New York, Sydney Park, tells me. “But it 100 percent is and I think every single woman in there would identify it as such.” And when I ask Krebs if nonbinary and transgender contestants are welcome to compete, she says they are. “I do absolutely think that is going to happen,” she says, citing a nonbinary contestant from 2019 as an example. (She does, however, point out that the competitor contract explicitly states that candidates must be “female,” and all national winners to date have presented as cisgender and heterosexual at the time of their crowning.)

Yet Miss America still undeniably features the trappings of a conventional beauty pageant: the blindingly shiny sequinned gowns; the bland interview answers to even more impressively bland questions (“Why would you call team collaboration a skill set?” is one question a panelist poses to Miss Indiana during preliminaries); and the shoehorned demonstrations of pageant talents, a word that is honestly defined fairly loosely (one contestant speed-paints an image of Rosie the Riveter; another recites a monologue from One Tree Hill). There is an argument to be made that the talent requirement is less about actual skill than a demonstration of a contestant’s willpower and self-discipline. But it also places further impossibly high standards on women who are already plenty impressive on their own merits — though admittedly, that is not an experience that is foreign to women even outside of the pageant circuit.

It also doesn’t help that many of the rules that have been criticized for years are still very much in place, such as the requirement that competitors be child-free and unmarried, a remnant of the days when all competitors were required to be symbols of blemish-free virginity. Such a rule “eliminates demographically the people who most need scholarships, which is young mothers who statistically come from low-income backgrounds,” says Mifflin. “Barring pageant-age mothers from competing denies help to women who need help the most.” (When asked directly about this, Krebs declined to comment, saying the competition serves a demographic of women “who are at a time in their life when they are launching their educational goals.”)

But there is also something else about Miss America in 2021, something that is undeniable ammunition to all of the haters and critics of the competition: the women who compete are highly accomplished, thoughtful, and remarkably impressive, and they are extremely open about the fact that their goal is to remake the organization in their image. Broyles, for instance, is half-Korean, neurodivergent and openly bisexual; she has an older brother, Brandon, with Down Syndrome, and has spent years working with the Special Olympics and advocating for inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

While there are some aspects of her trajectory toward Miss America that were fairly conventional — she won Miss Alaska Outstanding Teen before taking a break from the circuit, deciding to buy her Miss Alaska dress off eBay at the very last minute — she also represents a distinct break from many of the tropes of the competition. During the final ceremony, for instance, she spoke movingly about struggling with ADHD and trichotillomania, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and openly advocated for taking medication to manage her condition, a position that would have been virtually unheard of in previous years.

“Having that platform on the national stage, with so many people in person in the audience as well as so many people watching over Peacock, it felt like an opportunity for me to share my story,” she said. “I know there are so many young women and young men out there who were in the same boat as I was — what is wrong with me? Why am I not at the same level as my peers? And it’s so frustrating because I know exactly what that feels like.”

Sydney Park, A.K.A. Miss New York, who is also half-Korean, is a Fordham Law student whose platform is youth inclusion in group sports (during our conversation, and in TV interviews she’s done during her reign as Miss New York, she has spoken specifically about trans youth inclusion, though notably the word “transgender” did not come up during the competition itself). While both women are poised, outwardly effusive, and conventionally beautiful in the way we expect Miss America competitors to be, they are also women of color who are hoping to shape the narrative of what a pageant contestant looks like.

I never grew up thinking I was beautiful,” says Park. “I put a lot of time into my education, into my writing, into playing soccer. When I was five years old, I looked at the TV and I didn’t see women who looked like me. And now I have other half-Asian little girls who are like, ‘I look like you.’ And what they see is not this package of beauty, what they see is Ivy League grad, law student, New York powerhouse. And I think that’s the important part.”

Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun
Credit: Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

Khoi Ton for Mohegan Sun

Park entered the Miss New York competition after seeing an ad on Instagram to earn money for law school. At the time, Park’s knowledge of the pageant circuit was largely limited to Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock. “It’s a movie about a woman who has misconceptions about what pageants are all about, and she finds out it’s really about sisterhood,” she says. “And I was sitting there like, ‘OK, come on, Sandra.'” Much like Bullock’s character in the movie, however, throughout the competition Park positioned herself as an atypical candidate. For her talent, she recited a spoken-word poem she wrote called “Sit Like a Lady,” inspired by the viral moment in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren was told to take her seat.

“I started thinking about all of the other ways that we’re constantly told to be quiet, to be smaller, to be this, to be not to be put in a little tiny box and presented as just this perfect little package,” she says. “I’m not going to be quiet. I’m going to wear tall heels if I want to. I’ll sit how I want to and talk how I want to, and you’re going to listen to me.” Striding out onstage in blood-red Louboutins and a white pantsuit — a far cry from the spangled leotards and evening gowns one typically sees in pageantry — she delivered her poem, which culminates in the line, “If you want me to sit like a lady, well then, you best be prepared for when I stand like one, too,” and while the moment was irrefutably a little girl boss-y, it was also wildly effective, both as a piece of theater (Park won the first night of talent preliminaries) and as a rebuttal to what Miss America had previously stood for, and arguably, to an extent, still does.

On anonymous pageant message boards, Park’s win was by far the most buzz-worthy moment of the preliminaries. It was not uniformly well-received: many posters questioned whether spoken word poetry constituted a legitimate “talent,” an absurd debate that appeared to be recycled from similar questions about Schrier’s chemistry experiment. Many also euphemistically referred to Park as “too New York” or too “strident” to win Miss America, particularly at such a tenuous time in the competition’s history. “Miss America has one chance to get it right this year and if they don’t, it may be their last chance to get it right,” one anonymous poster forebodingly wrote. “They need a personality that is sincere and is unifying.” Such comments reminded me of the urgency of similar debates within the Democratic party over who to elect in opposition to Trump, and while there was something rather ludicrous about the panic undercutting this discourse, it was also fundamentally driven by the same question: should the Miss America organization elect someone “safe” and “unifying” during a time of national tumult, or should they opt for a more progressive candidate, who better reflects the country’s rapidly changing values?

Ultimately, the judges — three former MAO winners, also hastily announced before showtime — went down the Biden route: Park won third runner-up, with the final two boiling down to Miss Alabama, Lauren Bradford, a broadly grinning Vanderbilt graduate student who gamely struggled through technical difficulties during her electric violin performance; and Broyles. During the Miss America Challenge portion, which involved contestants addressing hypothetical scenarios faced by pageant winners, Broyles won the judges over with her fiery yet poised response to a #MeToo movement-inspired question about what she would do if a brand sponsor made sexual advances toward her.

“I am never going to let somebody treat me like [that], because women should never be treated like objects,” Broyles addressed the crowd to raucous cheers. “Women can be angry! We cannot be content with things that are happening.” Broyles’ response did not address the many institutional obstacles that prevent women, particularly women of color, from reporting sexual abuse in the workplace, or why it may be difficult for women outside of her privileged position to report such treatment. But in the context of a ritual that has long been accused of promoting female objectification, the mere acknowledgment that women do not exist to be objectified sent frissons through the crowd.

In the end, Broyles took home the crown, making her the first Miss Alaska and the woman of Korean descent, as well as the first openly bisexual contestant, to do so. When I spoke with her after the Miss America press conference, she looked tired yet jubilant. “I’d like to think that I am representative of what America is, my grandparents coming to America to live that American dream 50 years ago and my mom growing up as a full Korean-American,” she says after the show. “Getting to represent all these things that are so important to me, and things that I felt like once thought held me back, are things that are now embraced.” As she spoke, it occurred to me that there were plenty of venues other than the pageant circuit where someone as smart and driven and amiable as Broyles could have been just as successful, where no one would have ever made her feel unwelcome for the way she looked or where she came from or who she was. But then I saw her two brothers and mother beaming at her from the crowd, and any skepticism I may have had about the institution that had crowned her victorious vaporized in my head.

The night before finals, my mom and I were in the lobby, desperately trying to social distance from unmasked guests, when a small hush fell over the crowd. Seemingly out of nowhere, a coterie had emerged of sashed, stiletto’ed contestants streaming through the lobby en route to the Celebrate Miss America Show, where they would be awarded various scholarships, smiling and waving at awed Mohegan Sun patrons. One woman gasped. I am embarrassed to say that I instinctually started applauding, and I wasn’t sure why. After all, most of these women weren’t first responders or anyone else you’d typically thank for their service. But they had done a service in a way. They had sacrificed years of their lives and their youth in service of an ideal that was rapidly changing, that would look wildly different tomorrow than it did the day before. They were smart. They were hopeful. They were trying to change what being a woman in America meant, and one of them, for a year of their reign, would actually have a small window to try to do so. And thinking about that made me smile, like my crown depended on it, like I was right up there on stage with them.

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