The Miss America Organization produced a good-looking 100th-anniversary show last December, which concluded with the crowning of Emma Broyles of Alaska. Did you watch? I’m guessing not. Because the event wasn’t televised. Rather, it was streamed. If you were sufficiently motivated, you could have viewed it on your phone.
Okay, everything changes. And the Miss America extravaganza — not to mention the hundreds of lesser pageants across the country — is hardly a cultural “thing” anymore. Understandable. Here’s a question I ask myself: What’s relevant or even decent about parading young women down a runway in the age of #MeToo, in an era of global political strife? But I’m a guy. Do I even have standing to weigh in on this?
Regardless, I recently surveyed a group of friends and media veterans, asking what they thought of beauty contests. Most were women. I expected them to come down on pageants like a one-ton tiara. How wrong I was.
They were kinda-sorta not so much in favor, but they were not in an especially condemning frame of mind. Yes, the pageants objectify women and reflect the sensibilities of a bygone era. Nevertheless, live and let live. Most surprising to me was a message I received from Lisa DePaulo, a famously no-nonsense journalist from Philadelphia who’s covered many pageants. She sent a note: “The women who compete are not dummies. It takes a lot to mentally and physically compete. I am a big fan.” Call me … shocked.
Next, I phoned Hosea Sanders, a veteran TV anchor/reporter, now in Chicago. I zeroed in on Sanders because he has judged major beauty contests in and around the South, where there’s a strong culture around that scene. They are not exploitative, he protested when we talked. “It’s about physical fitness and intellect, not so much proportions. These women are leaders, not the caricature some make them out to be.” And so it went. I was feeling humiliated, kinda-sorta.
However, I found a small measure of sympathy in the words of a fellow essayist, B.D. McClay. While Miss America judges claim to dismiss physical attributes as a determining factor in their decision-making, McClay, writing this year in The New York Times Magazine, observed wryly that “it is only by happy accident that its participants are willowy and symmetrical.” Exactly! I thought.
Granted, serious strides have been made in the pageant community. Miss America — staking out higher ground for its brand — promotes itself as a “scholarship program.” In some competitions, swimsuits have been replaced by gowns. Transgender contestants are accepted. So too the disabled.
Meanwhile, activist lawyer Gloria Allred is currently challenging another barrier. She and her clients are going after the Miss Universe organization for barring women who’ve been pregnant. It’s an emotional issue. In fact, acknowledging a little-discussed aspect of top-level competition, the Miss USA group just this summer began offering mental-stress assistance to all of its contestants.
Mostly, though, it seems participants enjoy the experience. Maureen Errato, Mrs. America 2009, told me, “After I won, things just sort of began showing up in my mail — boxes of clothes, jewelry, luggage, an ice cream maker.” She laughed and sounded grateful for the freebies.
Do the big pageants have legs? Hilary Levey Friedman, who teaches at Brown University and focuses her scholarship on pageants — her mother was Miss America 1970 — summed up the prospects for me. “I don’t see them going away any time soon,” she said. “Will they be on national TV again? I’m highly skeptical.”
In our May/June issue, Cable Neuhaus interviewed Garrison Keillor.
This article is featured in the July/August 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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