In a surprising announcement Tuesday morning, Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the trustees for the Miss America organization, revealed that the pageant will do away with its notorious swimsuit competition. An outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement and advocate for victims of sexual assault, Carlson, crowned Miss America in 1989, made her announcement on Good Morning America.
“We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition,” Carlson said. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge, and that means that we will no longer have a swimsuit competition and that is official as of Sept. 9, when we have our competition in Atlantic City.”
Pageants like Miss America, with their stilted question-and-answer sessions and overblown costume changes, have grown increasingly antiquated in recent years; especially in light of movements like #MeToo, the relevancy of beauty pageants is nebulous at best. Carlson’s statement reflects our current moment, one that has persisted despite a president who’s made no secret of his blatantly sexist views and penchant for grabbing women wherever he feels necessary.
Before he was president, Donald Trump owned the Miss USA pageant—part of the Miss Universe organization, not to be confused with the aforementioned Miss America competition—from 1996 to 2015. His time as owner of the pageant was plagued with scandals, ranging from the disturbing (allegedly walking in on teenage girls changing) to downright cruel (tormenting a Miss Universe contestant about her weight while simultaneously pressuring her to have sex with him, for one). He even implemented something called “The Trump Rule,” where he oversaw pre-screenings of Miss USA contestants in revealing outfits and divided them into groups according to which ones he found most attractive. Then, he’d demand that each contestant name another contestant they considered beautiful, and would separate the women accordingly.
While Trump is no longer affiliated with Miss USA, these kinds of beauty pageants can be hard to reckon with in 2018 when women’s stories of sexual harassment and assault are finally being heard but sexism remains dangerously pervasive, especially in the politics of our president. The Miss America organization faced its own share of controversy last year when leaked emails revealed former CEO Sam Haskell and other organizers vulgarly mocked past winners, calling one “huge and gross,” jokingly wishing death on another, and referring to Carlson as a “snake.”
But the organization’s recent decision to eliminate both the swimsuit and evening gown components of their competition provides an important example for similar competitions across the world. Rather than judge young women on their appearances, with a few interview questions thrown in for a semblance of dignity, Carlson explained, “It’s going to be what comes out of [the candidates’] mouths that we’re interested in,” not just their swimsuit size.