Why we need Miss America – the Miss America pageant demonstrates important truths about the country and its people

Jill Neimark

The annual pageant brings hoots and snickers, but when the winner is crowned this September, we’ll be reminded once again of some vital truths about ourselves and our country.

Three quarters of a century ago, eight teenage girls came to Atlantic City on Labor Day weekend to compete in a bathing beauty contest. The year was 1921, and they arrived by train at this sequined and cacophonous city, flanked by miles of boardwalk that had originally been built to keep sand off the posh hotel carpets–this resort that had become a kind of Broadway by the beach, packed with diversions and enormous crowds. It was a city of pure contradiction, constructed on a wilderness of swamps and dunes, a place where the average working man could arrive by train and hire a “servant” for a buck to roll him down the boardwalk in a wicker chair. Doesn’t it somehow make perfect sense that Atlantic City’s swimsuit contest, dreamed up by the Chamber of Commerce to extend the summer holiday, would evolve into the most famous beauty pageant in modern history? A pageant as innocent and corrupt as the city that gave birth to it–and as the country that invented that city.

MISS AMERICA. FOR A SKIN SHOW, she’s been caught in the crossfire of colossal cultural battles: women’s rights, pornography, changing racial and religious values. Feminist poet Robin Morgan claimed that the pageant inspired the formal launching of the women’s movement in 1968, when a crowd of protesters burned their bras, torched host Bert Parks in effigy, stormed the exhibition hall, and accused the contest of being lily-white, racist, and pro-military. Since then, Miss America has changed with the times: she has been black, deaf, and a social activist with platforms ranging from AIDS prevention to children’s self esteem and aging with dignity –although she still struts in a bathing suit.

In the last decade, interest in the title has been flagging, and the pageant has had to offer gimmicks like viewer phone-in votes and two-piece swimsuits to boost television ratings. Still, every September, at least 20 million Americans stay home on a Saturday night to scorn or applaud the winner and see the kitschy crown passed on. If you’re one who observes that annual ritual,you may watch out of simple nostalgia–Miss America as a kind of Proustian madeleine of days long gone, when you were a girl and she was a queen. Or you may watch for the treacly high camp of it all, or just out of an ambivalent blend of disgust and fascination. Yet somehow, at 78-years-old, this icon still lives.

The fact is, Miss America informs us about our culture’s ideals and conflicts. That’s what all beauty pageants do, according to Richard Wilk, professor of anthropology at Indiana University. “They’re always about fundamental contradictions in the culture,” he declares. “How else could you get millions of people to watch a bunch of relatively untalented women in bathing suits?” The Miss America contest has always knit together in its middle-class queen the deep schisms in American society. Whether her contestants flaunt pierced belly buttons or Ph.D.s in veterinary medicine, wear pants or ballgowns, Miss America is a mirror of America, even now.

So what is she really saying about us–and why do we need to know, anyway?

* We’re a big clubhouse, but we’re not sure you should be a member. We may be a melting pot of races and types, but we have a fairly inflexible standard of beauty. Almost all the Miss Americas have been white. According to Frank Deford, author of There She Is, the composite contestant in 1971 was 19 years old, 5 feet 6 inches, 119 pounds, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion. And she hasn’t changed much since then. “Miss America is the official standard of beauty, kind of like the dollar bill,” observes Wilk. “The rest of us schlubs are not necessarily ugly We may be beautiful, but by different standards.” As an example, he cites Monica Lewinsky; with her plump curves and formerly big hair. “She is extremely beautiful by the small-town standards of the Midwest, and that big hair is the peak of fashion in southern Indiana where I live. But she does not look like a Miss America.”

Give the pageant a bit of credit, though. The first black winner was chosen in 1984–Vanessa Williams (and her replacement, Suzette Charles). Since then, three more African-Americans have worn the crown. Williams, with her fine-boned features, was said to match the “white” ideal, but Marjorie Vincent, the 1991 titleholder, with her very dark skin and full figure, represented a different, and more diverse, vision of beauty. In 1997, the contestant from Colorado was Hispanic and Miss Washington, D.C., was of Indian descent.

“More Latina young women and African-Americans are entering the contest, and those audiences are now watching,” says New York City psychologist Elizabeth Debold, author of Mother Daughter Revolution: From Good Girls to Great Women. “The pageant may be providing a way for immigrant and outsider groups to enter the mainstream.”

It is at the smaller local contest level that the clash of immigrant culture and mainstream America is most clearly seen. In fact, some local competitions seem to exist precisely on that fault line, providing a stage on which to battle out cultural assimilation in the arena of beauty. “These pageants let immigrants ask who they are,” says Wilk, “how much of the American model they want, how much they’re going to adapt, how to pass their culture’s values on to the next generation.” For instance, the Miss India America pageant, held in Atlanta, Georgia, offers teenagers of Asian Indian descent a chance to parade their own standards of beauty and their position in American society. One teen performs an acrobatic routine to disco music; another does a classical Indian dance.

Though such local contests don’t feed directly into the Miss America pageant, the conflicts of the microcosm spread ripples that are felt in the macrocosm. Even so, the favored contestant hasn’t altered all that much. If beauty does reflect cultural and social values, we–the great democracy–don’t know how inclusive we really want to be. Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, was crowned in 1945. “She meant as much then to Jewish women as Vanessa Williams meant to blacks,” says Vicki Gold Levi, co-author with Lee Eisenberg of Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness. Myerson is still the only Jewish woman to wear the crown. And most of the finalists and winners are still white.

* We’re still a nation of Yankees and Southern belles. Miss America unmasks the schism between the North and the South it never went away–and the penumbra of the Southern belle still holds sway in our national psyche. Only one New England contestant has ever won the Miss America title, Connecticut’s Marian Bergeron in 1933, while southern and western states have been overwhelmingly represented. New England women don’t seem to cotton to beauty pageants. In Vermont, the Miss America organization has such a hard time dredging up contestants that a few years ago there were only 10 candidates for the state crown. One recent Miss Vermont flaunted a pierced navel–not exactly Miss America’s brand of all-American.

* Cinderella ought to come from the middle class and go to college. Miss America gives us a capsule look at middle-class America and its values. After World War II, Miss America became part of the culture of middle-class civic boosterism. The girls who make it to the national pageant start out competing in county or state contests sponsored by community organizations like the Elks or the Rotary Club. “At the local level,” says anthropologist Robert Lavenda, a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, “the community is looking for an appropriate representative. When a girl wins a small-town queen pageant she’ll be announced as `Mary Jo, the daughter of Frank and Suzanne.’ The community knows these girls.” These days, however, junior contestants are drawn from a different circle than earlier. Where once they came from cheerleading squads and drama clubs, nowadays they’re picked off soccer fields and basketball courts.

The “bawdy” pageant initiated its scholarship program at the end of the War, and today the organization gives out $32 million in scholarships to young women every year. Many of the early winners of the crown vowed to use the money to enter college. Today’s Miss America often has her sights set far higher. Older than earlier candidates, she’s likely to already be in college and aiming for medical, law, or graduate school. In fact, many Miss America contestants now say the sole reason they enter the pageant is to finance their education. Practicality–what could be a more middle-class and American virtue?

* We’ve got faith. She reminds us of our bottomless sincerity and spirit. Miss Americas say things like “Mental attitude is so important” and “Every day is a gift from God.” You might snicker at the platitudes, but who’s buying all the self-help books that offer precisely that inspirational message? She comes out of the same cultural spout as that runaway bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Soul.

* We’ve got pluck. Miss America embodies our Horatio Alger can-do spirit. We believe that by dint of hard work we can overcome anything. It’s the triumph of nurture over nature. So many aspects of being a beauty queen are beyond personal control–you’ve got to be between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 10 inches, for instance. “On the other hand,” notes Wilk, “everyone always talks about how hard these girls work.”

Reflecting our preoccupation with fitness, today’s Miss America is pumped and streamlined, whereas in 1921 she was soft and plump. Bodybuilding is practically a given for contestants as are strenuous sessions in the gym. One participant in the 1990 pageant, Karrie Mitchell of Colorado, admitted, “I was not a swimsuit winner a year ago, let me tell you.” She worked out until she shrank from a size 12 to a size five.

Many contestants are willing to undergo extensive cosmetic surgery, (which the state pageants sometimes pay for). They also resort to the old stand-bys, mummifying themselves with surgical tape to enhance their cleavage and the curve of their buttocks.

* We’re all equal, but we love royalty. Sure, she’s just an ordinary American girl, but she wears a crown and is cloaked in celebrity. Norman Rockwell was one of the pageant’s original judges, others have ranged from Grace Kelly to Donald Trump. Miss America opens shopping centers and moves in power circles. As a Boston Globe editorial recently noted, “In a letter to the President, one icon to another, Miss America asked for federal funds for needle exchange programs [to prevent AIDS].” Icons, of course, gain status when they rub noses with other icons. She’s got to be more than a bathing beauty, asking the president for federal funding.

Very few Miss Americas have gone on to lasting fame, but that makes perfect sense. To win, she has to be the ultimate paradox, everyday royalty, the thing that every American secretly believes he or she is.

* We love to gossip. It’s the corollary to fame. Miss America lets us know we love knowing a secret, no matter how trivial. Journalists have asked competitors about the “firm grip gunk” they spray on their butts to keep their bathing suits from riding up; during one recent pageant, the press rooted out that 37 contestants had been arrested for speeding at some time in their life.

* We love glitz. Let’s face it, America has always had a purple-spangled heart, always been genuinely and even naively trashy. From its start, Miss America has been high camp. “The pageant always manages to confuse the wholesome with the wholesale, a clean time with a good time,” says Levi.

In the late 1940s, Miss Montana rode her horse onstage and almost fell into the orchestra pit; after that animals were banned; Miss Nevada lamented, “You mean I won’t be able to have my cow perform?” Miss Nebraska tossed a flaming baton into the judges’ booth; flaming batons were banned, later, a church choir member did a striptease–and won the crown.

Alas, such glorious moments are gone. The highlight of the pageant, though, remains: the declaration of the winner with her requisite burst of tears and careful stroll down the runway, crown slipping from her head.

* Superwoman is alive and well. This pageant tells us what women are supposed to be. “She’s the cultural icon of the perfect girl,” declares Debold. Today, Miss Americas are asked to be beautiful, to achieve, and to serve. (In the pageant’s official parlance, she no longer “reigns.”) She has a platform, and it’s inevitably for social good. One recent Miss America was a cancer survivor studying to be a musical therapist for the gravely ill.

“It’s a totally contradictory model,” asserts Wilk. “She should be strong but weak, aggressive but submissive, totally committed to her career and her family, have touches of the social worker, and basically walk on water in high-heeled shoes and make it look easy.” Whew.

* It’s all for one and one for all. Miss America tells us, finally, one last fact: that we still believe a single person can serve as a living snapshot of an entire country Like the Mercury astronauts, like baseball’s boys of summer, Miss America thrives, simply because we believe in the best and the brightest. What could be brighter than her Vaselined smile, telling us, at the close of that special September evening every year, that we still believe? We’re a nation of believers. God Bless Miss America–and does anyone have a handful of popcorn to throw at the TV?

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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