Why Miss America Isn’t as Demeaning to Women as We Thought

Miss America 2015 Contestants By US Department of Education [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Miss America 2015 Contestants By US Department of Education [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re like me, and you follow the Miss America Organization on Facebook, you have been bombarded with posts over the last few weeks as all of last year’s state titleholders handed off their crowns to this year’s Miss America hopefuls. You already know that the The 52 young women from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico know which competition group they’re in, when their swimsuit competitions are, and when they should plan their massive ingestions of  honey-lemon-water before their vocal talent performances, or when to stop cracking their knuckles before their piano solos. For most, we rally behind the woman representing our home state, or maybe the state of our college alma mater. For others, we cheer on the woman who best represents who we identify with, like the many who rallied behind Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri (Miss New York 2013) who was the first Indian-American Miss America (and only the second Asian-American).

A growing number of the American population have stopped watching beauty pageants like Miss America and its Donald-Trump-owned competitor Miss Universe, and many have cited that the pageants as a whole degrade women, judge them for how they appear, and not for who they are. I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not I would continue to follow these organizations and if I thought they were demeaning to women or if they helped women in the long run (financially or psychologically), and after a lifetime of being in and out of the pageant system… I think I’ve finally made my decision.

If you ask a common passerby on the streets, most people don’t know the difference between Miss America and Miss Universe. The biggest differences I’ve found from studying the competitions are age, judging criteria, and extent of competition.

Miss America
Age Bracket: 17-24
Judging: “Lifestyle and Fitness” (Swimsuit): 15%
Evening Wear: 20%
Talent: 35%
Private Interview: 25%
On-Stage Question: 5%
Extent of Competition: State Title, National Title

Miss Universe
Age Bracket: 18-27
Judging: Equal weight in evening gown, swimsuit, and personality interview
Extent of Competition (for USA): State Title, National Title, International Title

From a very basic, strictly by-the-numbers look, if one places a Miss America next to a Miss USA, one could assume that the Miss USA would lack depth and would not be as well rounded as the Miss America would be. If you delve into the competition further, you realize that the Miss America contestants also must select a “platform” or a cause that they believe in. These causes vary in type -for some it’s a disease like Breast Cancer, or Cerebral Palsy, others choose the importance of arts and music in elementary education- but these women dedicate their personal time to these causes with fundraising and helping with events in their communities.

The other very obvious difference is Miss America’s highly-weighted Talent portion of the competition. For many women who participate in Miss Universe, the lack of the talent portion is a relief. They don’t lack talent, they just lack a talent accepted by Miss America. Take a look at the Talent lineup for Miss America 2016…

claire miss america

There are only two contestants with some sort of theatrical performance listed. How spectacular do Miss Rhode Island and Miss Connecticut’s monologues have to be to get them to the Miss America stage? With all of the other “more marketable” talents on this list, it’s intimidating for an actress to want to set foot on that stage when “all she’s doing is reciting words” and she’s up against women who have been playing instruments, dancing, or singing for years. Even controversial Miss Kansas 2013 Theresa Vail felt this pain; she chose to sing for her talent portion of the competition because clauses against projectile objects kept her from demonstrating her prowess in archery. Of course, even some contestants’ talents can fall a little flat, making people wonder if the talent portion of the competition is just protocol, but not necessarily weighted as much as it seems to be. Case and point, Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev’s Vocal and Cup routine and how it was criticized after she won the crown.

In recent years, America has slowly fallen away from watching the pageants when they’re televised each year. NPR believes it has to do with our inability to connect with the contestant’s stories in two hours like we do with our other reality television worlds… or we just tune in when we get upset with the football game that happened to be televised at the same time. With Donald Trump on the campaign trail suffering from a terrible case of foot-in-mouth syndrome, Miss USA barely found a home in time for its televised national competition on July 12th (not to mention without hosts, and without a Miss Mexico when it comes time for Miss Universe). Reelz allowed America to watch the crowning of the new Miss USA (Oklahoma’s Olivia Jordan), but only 2.4 million people actually tuned in.

Perhaps Last Week Tonight host John Oliver’s tirade on Miss America last year might have had something to do with it. The set digs up details that debunk the amount that The Miss America Organization claims to provide to women each year, though it does confirm it as the top scholarship provider and dispenser of scholarships exclusive to women. It also parodies the pageant in such a way to mock the fact that not only are these scholarships exclusive to women, it narrows the field further to women who are not married, not mothers and have never been pregnant, and have “extensive knowledge of butt adhesive technology” and claims that the pageant only values women enough to have conversations with them that are only 20 seconds long (the length of time allowed to answer the on-stage question).

We do know that these pageants can spark a little reality-television-like fire across the country the same way those football games that we eventually stopped watching in favor of the pageants do. When Nina Davuluri won in 2014, part of the country celebrated with Nina because she became the first Indian-American Miss America. Nina embraced the title entirely -she performed a Bollywood style talent routine, and her platform revolved around how she was bullied for her race as a child. However, a great deal of the country wanted Miss Kansas 2013 Theresa Vail to win the crown, and adopted hate speech against Nina when Theresa only made the Top 10. Theresa was a “better picture” of America to many because she was the first contestant to show her tattoos proudly on the Miss America stage (representing roughly 40% of the country) and she is a military veteran (7.3% of the current living American population). This argument isn’t entirely incorrect, as Nina’s Indian-American representation makes up only about 1% of the American population, but the judges of the Miss America competition are never asked to select the contestant that “most represents America” anywhere in their criteria. Even last year when Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev was crowned, the jury was out on how to “rate” her ties to Planned Parenthood. Half of the country decided it was something to shame her for, the others weren’t surprised and had to remind the country that she wasn’t the first.

While John Oliver makes a very valid point and does a wonderful job drumming up support for other women-exclusive scholarships, he misses a big part of the reason why a decent portion of the Miss America faithful continue to watch the program year after year; there are still little girls looking for role models, and there are still young women who grow up wanting to be Miss America, and spend a decent part of their teenage (even some of their college) years doing whatever prep work they believe will give them an edge in these pageants. I remember growing up every year watching both pageants with my mother, looking at what each young woman wanted to do with her life, idolizing how each woman could be elegant, eloquent, intelligent, and beautiful all at the same time. Every time the women would get a chance to answer the onstage question, my mother would pause the program we had previously taped (either on an actual video-cassette or on our DVR, whatever era we were in at the time), and allow me to answer the question before the Miss America or Miss USA hopeful, then we’d play the program and decide if the eight-year-old me or the 21-year-old contestant had the better response.

Not unlike the many other Miss America contestants today, I too did pageants and scholarship competitions when I was younger. My “poison of choice” that got me started was Pre-Teen America, a scholarship competition with the judging criteria placed plainly on the front page of the website -no swimsuit competition or any notion that the young ladies who participate in it are ever judged by how they look.

Other young women choose the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program, which has judging criteria similar to the Miss America competition (swimsuit competition targeted at judging level of physical fitness, private interview, talent, emphasis on service and leadership, etcetera). Even more young women opt for the one-time-only scholarship competition Distinguished Young Women, previously known as “America’s Junior Miss” before the name changed about five years ago. The old name reflected the year in school that the young women were eligible to compete in their regional pageants; junior year of high school. DYW has no swimsuit competition, but judges its contestants in physical fitness by putting them through an aerobic dance routine, and also includes private interviews, self expression in the form of evening wear and an onstage question, and a talent portion. I fared well in the PTA program, and made lasting friendships. I participated in DYW when I hit that one-time-only year in high school, won a category, and one of my hometown titleholders went on to win the state title.

I must admit, I will not be cheering on Miss California when Miss America broadcasts the final competition live this year on September 13, 2015 on ABC. My vote is for Miss Louisiana 2015, April Nelson. Miss Louisiana has not brought home the title of Miss America since the program has been started. April can make that happen. I know that because I’ve met her. We’re the same age. She was my competition whenever Pre-Teen America nationals rolled around every fourth-of-July-week and anyone that qualified packed up the necessary family, costumes, and props to the city that had been selected for that year. I still remember April belting out “All That Jazz” for the talent competition one year, arguing with her parents about adding a chair to the start of her piece so she could make an entrance at the very last second. My talent was never much, and April’s pipes could always wipe the floor with whatever martial arts routine my mother and I had put together that year. April continued on the pageant path, and was Miss Louisiana’s Outstanding Teen 2008. She even competed in Miss Oklahoma while she was in college and tried to make her Miss America dream come true while away from home. I have to admit, I’m tickled watching all of her Miss America news pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s incredibly fun to live vicariously through her and watch her go shopping for her on-stage-question dress at various boutiques. I can’t help but wonder if that could have been me if I had kept with some of my pageantry…

Do pageants really hurt women more than they help? I honestly don’t think they do. In the beginning days of Miss America, the contestants really were measured all over to be judged on proper proportioning, but now the contestants are judged (albeit by sight) to see if they look physically fit and healthy. Take a look at the on-stage-question round from Miss America 2014 (the year of Nina Davuluri). These are hard questions, and most of them are somewhat political. These women have to fit concise, accurate, eloquent responses into 20 seconds.

It’s like John Oliver said, “they just asked her to solve ISIS”, and the contestant actually did a halfway decent job of it in the segment that he selected. These women have to solve pressing political issues, and while their responses aren’t mandated and practiced like they’re doctrine and gospel, they still don’t get to filibuster. Even if they were allowed to filibuster, they wouldn’t be forced to stay on topic the entire time, and even if they were, chances are they could keep elaborating on what they feel would fix whatever problem they were posed, or why they feel the way they feel about this or that political policy that’s a current event at the time. One thing’s for sure, watching young women who have ambitions solve the world’s problems in 20 seconds is a lot more entertaining than watching someone read a phone book in an attempt to prevent policy from moving forward.

I think I’ll take Miss America over C-Span and phonebooks any day.

Claire Thomas is an independent filmmaker who will not rest until every film passes the Bechdel test. She lives in California.

If you liked this post, make sure to check out Fitness Competitions: A dissection of fitness, health and beauty ideals by Fem2 Blogger Clara Vaz.

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  • Tamara

    As a local and state competitor in the Miss America pageant I think this article did a great job! I would like to point out that the Miss America organization is also privy to several hundred local title holders. All of whom receive scholarships at the local level! Keep up the hard work, great job!