Monday, September 16, 2013

A Feminist's Criticism of the Miss America Pageant

When I Google Imaged "Miss America," the vast majority
 of photos that came up were of competitors in swimsuits.
I had to search for "Miss America logo" to find a suitable,
non-objectifying picture to accompany this post.
Last night, the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant was crowned in Atlantic City. Although the competition’s viewership peaked in the 1960s, it is still extremely popular among Americans today. Movies like Miss Congeniality, television shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and the existence of Miss America make it very clear that beauty pageants are ubiquitous in our society.

Feminists’ disdain for beauty pageants became part of the historical record in the late 1960s, when one of the first major events of Second Wave Feminism was a protest of Miss America. Feminists picketed the pageant and threw articles of traditional femininity like bras and eyelash curlers into a large garbage can, crowning a sheep as Miss America. Although they did not actually burn any bras at this (or any other) event, it is commonly thought that throwing bras into the garbage can is the genesis of this myth.

Although I have yet to meet them, I know that some women who identify as feminists don’t believe that pageants like Miss America are inherently sexist, touting that they’re just scholarship programs that encourage girls to do community service and pursue an advanced education. A quick look at Miss America’s website shows that the pageant is trying very hard to sell this image of itself: every page bears the heading of “Miss America Scholarship Fund,” and has the motto “style, service, scholarship, and success.”

It’s undeniable that Miss America is, indeed, a scholarship program, since it does award its winners thousands of dollars for their education. However, it’s extremely misleading for Miss America to make it seem like women competing in the pageant are being evaluated and rewarded solely on their brains. When it was established in the 1920s, the pageant’s main event was the swimsuit competition. While feminist criticism compelled Miss America’s organizers to add talent and interview components, 35% of each competitor’s overall score is still determined by how she looks in a swimsuit and evening gown.

Personally, I call that objectification of women, and it’s just not acceptable in my book.

Throughout its history, Miss America has made it a priority to objectify straight, white, Christian women. The pageant has an extremely spotty history with race; when it was first established in the 1920s, non-white women were not allowed to enter. Prospective applicants actually had to fill out a biological questionnaire testifying to the purity of their ancestry. The pageant opened to women of color in the 1970s, but only eight African-Americans have won since. (Perhaps this is because of the fact that blondes win more often than women with other hair colors.) There has yet to be an openly LGBT+ woman to win the pageant, and only one Jew has ever won. Interestingly, women with disabilities have competed and even won Miss America.


I would love to compete in next year’s Miss America Pageant. I think it would be a lot of fun to get up on a stage and be judged by millions of viewers across the country for how I look. I would seriously think about entering, but I’m just too short. All the Miss America competitors are always pretty tall, and as someone who’s 4’11”, I just don’t have a shot at winning the title. It’s too bad. I’d love to get some more feedback on my physical appearance from complete strangers.

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