In the year that this country may see its first woman elected to the presidency, it’s way too easy to find reasons the Miss America competition has become outdated.
From the demeaning swimsuit competition to the stubborn lack of diversity among contestants — nearly half of this year’s contestants had blond hair, and there was a low percentage of women of color (although this year did see one woman with short hair, as well as its first openly lesbian competitor) — one could argue that it reflects neither the values of our nation nor those of the young, college-attending women it aims to champion.
And since Sunday, when the competition crowned Miss Arkansas, Savvy Shields as Miss America 2017, the online world has been abuzz about it.
“Contest is a joke and quite frankly, an embarrassment. They should do everyone (including themselves) a favor and just end it,” noted one of hundreds of Yahoo commenters upon reading the news of Miss America’s crowning. Added another: “This is so utterly superficial and meaningless. It’s a throwback to a world where women’s so-called physical beauty was tantamount to something — although I fail to see what. Someday, hopefully soon, inner beauty will steal the spotlight.”
One asked, simply, “Miss America still exists?”
Because it does, and since we are still talking about it, I was desperate to find reasons why, yes, it most certainly is relevant when I took my seat at the competition on Sunday night in Atlantic City’s hangar-like Boardwalk Hall. There, I found myself among a sea of fans that shook huge homemade banners and screamed and danced and cried as if they were at an arena concert.
“Our sister queens are up there right now!” Miss America Outstanding Teen Emily Brewer, 17, of Arkansas, told me, leaping out of her seat to shriek each time Miss Arkansas was mentioned. She attended Sunday night’s pageant in her sash and gown and sparkly crown, just like the many other teens around her, who screamed and Snapchatted as if Justin Bieber were onstage.
It was the closest I’d ever gotten to a live pageant, although I, like so many girls before me, grew up seeing it on TV, when I enjoyed, I admit, watching and judging the contestants on their dresses and their walks and their hair. But in the end, when the winner was crowned, vague disappointment and confusion always gnawed at me: What was the purpose of that judging of my fellow young women?
Of course, I knew Miss America only as it had been originally intended — as a straight-up beauty pageant, in which the prettiest, sexiest gal was awarded with a sparkly crown and a huge bouquet of roses. Little did I know, as a kid, that after its initial creation as a publicity stunt (the “Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest”) to extend the summer tourist season on the Jersey Shore, the pageant had morphed into a competition for college scholarships — for smart, determined, all-around-gifted young women who just happen to be gorgeous.
“We know what it’s like to work so hard,” Miss America Outstanding Teen Samantha Anderson, 17, of Connecticut, told me regarding the frenzied excitement of young women in the audience on Sunday evening. She added, in a way that was familiarly scripted, “It’s not just a beauty contest — it’s a scholarship pageant.”
Advocates are quick to add that, since 1990 all the women are required to have social platforms that they will work to promote during their reign, thereby truly effecting change in the world. And hearing the fierce young women speak on what they are passionate about is heartening indeed.
So score one for relevance.
OK, then, but … why still the swimsuits?
“It shows your physical fitness,” teen queen Anderson said, smirking when I asked her why it wasn’t sexist. “It’s about confidence.”
Pageant coach Valerie Hayes has some different ideas about the stubborn swimsuit portion of the program. “That’s how the pageant started, and it’s honoring the roots of the pageant — that’s what [the officials] would say,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “But I think because the die-hard pageant fans would throw a hissy fit and because people like to tune in for the swimsuit competition. They like that segment of the show. It’s not really that complicated.”
In the pageant’s heyday, Hayes adds, the broadcast had major corporate sponsors, but viewership dropped over time, and the pageant became more reliant on ad-sales revenue. “People like to tune in and see fit women on TV,” she says, “just like they like the hot tub scenes of The Bachelor.”
People also love tradition, she adds. “The thousands of people in Atlantic City this week go and support the pageant and watch it on TV every year. It’s always the same thing, and you have multiple generations, and they like that it’s the same,” she says. “It’s a continuity issue for fans.”
I then ask Hayes, who speaks like a feminist (she calls herself a “purist,” in that she thinks pageants should stress “critical thinking and self-esteem), if Miss America is anti-feminist. She says it’s complicated.
“I think it depends on the definition of feminism and also the definition of Miss America,” she explains. “If it is to conform to a preconceived mold of what she should look like or have talent and what kind of opinion she should espouse then, no, I don’t think it’s feminism. If Miss America is about empowering women to make their own choices about what they want to create for themselves in their lives and teaches them skills to achieve those goals and then feel free enough to give their opinion — on gay marriage, on abortion — then yes, it’s feminist. So that’s the challenge for the Miss America system.”
A spokesperson for the Miss America Organization did not respond to questions about relevancy or the swimsuit competition.
But earlier this year, when Miss Teen USA (a part of the separate Miss Universe Organization) announced it was doing away with its bikini portion (but replacing it with revealing workout wear), Miss America CEO Sam Haskell said the organization would not be following suit. “I don’t think Miss America will ever do away with the swimsuit competition,” he told ET. “It’s something that we love to show — how physically fit our contestants are. It’s part of the tradition of the organization.”
Taking issue with the barely clad segment of competition is certainly not new.
It actually started with a Miss America named Yolande Betbeze — who reigned back in 1951. “Emphasizing that she had entered the pageant for the scholarships, not to become a pinup, Betbeze flatly declared that ‘she would be seen in a swimsuit only when she intended to swim and not for “cheesecake” poses,’” Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, wrote in her 2014 book, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain.
Shindle was a notable titleholder when she took the platform of HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness and ran with it and stresses to this day how important and powerful it is to have an organization back a 20-something young woman and her views of the world. “The Miss America Organization and that position in general still has tremendous potential to affect the world in a good way,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “Whether or not it’s being used that way on any given day is up in the air.”
Shindle says that despite all that potential and goodness, the Miss America Organization often gets in its own way — such as with the swimsuit contest. “I’ve said for years that those more superficial elements of Miss America are things that could go away if the Miss America Organization had the courage to say, ‘We feel that young women are interesting enough to stake our entire future on their place in the world and what they have to say and the leadership qualities that they are able to offer.’ I don’t know that the pageant has ever quite gotten there,” Shindle, a Broadway actress who will next star in the Fun Home national tour, explains. “It would be so exciting if they did. Because I do believe that the young women of America are fighting a different battle than they were one or two generations ago. Young women then were fighting for women to be included and to machete their way through a patriarchal society. And I feel like young women now are looking at the world and saying, ‘Sure, I’m a girl. Why not me?’ And that’s a really exciting time for women to be living in.”
That’s probably why I become surprisingly choked up, in spite of myself, at a particular point in the competition on Sunday night.
It’s when Miss South Carolina is giving it her all in a dance performance — when the South Carolina natives and fans around me start going crazy, yelling, “Go, Rachel!” and cheering with such love and support that I can’t help but get swept up in their pride. It’s not that I’m won over; it’s that this accomplished human — whose platform is Autism Speaks and whose ambition is to become a speech pathologist — is having to basically sing for her supper.
And she’s freaking doing it, beautifully and gracefully.
And these people love her for it.
And I’m sappy that way.
So is it relevant? Except to the many people in the pageant world to whom it matters deeply, it feels like it isn’t right now. But just maybe, if people can drag the dusty ol’ organization into 2016 by getting it to lop off the beauty part once and for all — and if enough people even care to — then it could be possible. And with all of that talent and all of those smarts, why shouldn’t it be?
“The Miss America Organization has a choice, and they can either lead through this moment or they can react to this moment,” Shindle says. “And I hope that they lead, but I fear that they will simply react.”