What Is Miss America, if Not a Magnificence Pageant?

The Miss America Competition, which celebrated its 100th birthday this year, has since survived important parties and manned missions to the moon, VHS cassette and subway token, the Soviet Union and the nitrate film. It even outlives itself and seems to be more attached to it because the infrastructure stays in place than from anyone’s active desire to see it. And as last month’s streaming-only broadcast of the Centennial Pageant shows, even indolence can only get you this far. People once saw Miss America on television, tens of millions of them; it was an institution of enough importance to protest how many were doing it. But who needs a pageant these days? If you want to see women strive to live up to an ideal of femininity that no one really desires, then check out The Bachelor.

The reason for the competition, on the other hand, has not changed since 1945: It is money, from scholarships and brand deals, a platform for starting a career or initiative. This was certainly the case with Miss New York, Sydney Park, who, as Ej Dickson reported in Rolling Stone, entered the contest “after seeing an ad on Instagram to make money for school.” And it was Park’s performance in the talent segment that, to me, illustrated the essential madness and bad faith at the heart of Miss America: Much as it may be, the 21st was founded upon.

Park played a poem – her own poem – that begins, “When I was a little girl I was told to sit like a lady.” But of course (the poem goes on) you can do many things “like a lady” : advocate for justice or become vice president and so on. Park performed this poem in a white pant suit that, while not a conscious reference to Hillary Clinton in 2016, was at least a visual rhyme. Her criticism of ladylike behavior was delivered while simultaneously being modeled – “back straight, chin up,” just as the poem describes it, and shod in Louboutins. There was nothing inalienable to be found here, that was the point, but also the problem.

Miss America isn’t a beauty pageant, at least not for Miss America. She has insisted on this since the late 1940s when her executive director Lenora Slaughter told New York journalist Lillian Ross, “This is not a leg show and we no longer call the beauties bathing beauties. The bathing section ran out in 1945 when we started giving out large scholarships. ”This was at a time when Miss America was posting the body measurements of all participants. (It got separated too, but Slaughters obvious concern was that it might appear superficial rather than bigoted.) As of 2018, Miss America claims not to judge contestants by their looks at all – it’s just a happy coincidence that their contestants are slim and symmetrical.

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