As other beauty pageants have slowly gone extinct—or worse, exclusively to online streaming—the Miss America Competition has refused to loosen its glued-on French manicured grip on prime time television. The 2017 Miss America Competition aired on Sunday night, pitting the tireless work of 8,000 female competitors against the premarital squabbles of Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna. Unlike the rest of the pageant, this was no competition, as the crowning of the Miss America pageant feels more and more irrelevant with every passing year. If I wanted to watch multi-hyphenates give me body, face, and campy talent realness, I would watch an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. If I had a craving for two hours of mediocre content, I would watch a newish episode of SNL. And if I wanted to feel bad about how I look in a bikini, I could just tune in to any television channel/open a fashion magazine/do a Google image search of Gigi Hadid.
The Miss America Competition isn’t bad, or unentertaining—it’s just not very good, and not as entertaining as it could be.
The competition opens at the “Show me your shoes” parade, a mini-challenge of sorts where the contestants are forced to model the distinctive footwear of their home states. The 2017 Miss America Competition clearly did not go out of its way to differentiate itself from the dystopian YA series The Hunger Games, in which competitors are introduced to the nation in outfits inspired by the products that their districts have been forced to manufacture. Playing the role of Caesar Flickerman is Bachelor dad Chris Harrison and his co-host, Sage Steele.
Harrison and Steele introduce the Miss America pageant as second only to the presidential elections, noting that this competition is no less fierce, but a whole lot more friendly. They also emphasize that, “We are not affiliated with any other TV competitions, or any presidential candidates,” making us all nostalgic for past presidential races when we could take a lack of beauty pageant affiliation for granted.
The competitors proceed to introduce themselves in a series of segments, sprinkled throughout Atlantic City—we have girls awkwardly gyrating in an abandoned Buddakan, posing for the camera on a cruise, and waving on the boardwalk. Contestants who Chris Harrison hates are forced to make their introductions from inside an incredibly windy bumper car arena. These 10-second meet and greets are an early highlight of the competition. Miss Arizona wants you to, “Thank my state for giving you the Miranda warning—you have the right to remain silent, except when cheering for me.” Miss Arkansas brags, “In my state, girls don’t need to wait to get a diamond—we can dig up our own.” There are sports facts, numerous shout-outs to the armed forces, and one rogue Neil Patrick Harris reference. As each woman delivers her line, her pageant sisters awkwardly shake their bodies around in work-appropriate red, white, and blue shift dresses, as if they’re participating in a lunch break flash mob at a midtown Au Bon Pain.
Chris Harrison tells us that the preliminary judges have already been cutting down the competition for two weeks. Tonight, he’ll announce the 15 women who are advancing to the onscreen portion of the pageant—the swimsuit, talent, and question segments. The first woman who will be moving forward is the audience pick, Miss Kentucky. In her pre-shot video, Miss Kentucky briefly talks about her eating disorder, as the crowd cheers and Chris Harrison speed-lists the next 15 names. The pacing of this show is truly insane—Chris Harrison has quickly pivoted from Bachelor in Paradise, a show from which ABC squeezes hours of content every week, to this two-hour information-and-action-packed extravaganza. The women move from one side of the stage to the other as the co-hosts rattle off the panel of star judges. Gabby Douglas! Ciara! Mark Cuban! Laura Marano?
Harrison finishes reading off the list of women who now have the honor of getting to go change into their bikinis. At this point, we’ve got to pour one out for Miss Missouri Erin O’ Flaherty, the pageant’s first openly gay contestant, who didn’t make it into the top 15. O’ Flaherty, who openly spoke about her sexuality but never wanted it to define her, proves that gay women can do anything—even old school, borderline problematic straight people things like beauty pageants.
After a short #SponCon segment of the contestants showing off their Sally Hansen Airbrush LegsÒ, Chris Harrison introduces the bathing suit competition to really kick off the show. According to Harrison, the original bathing beauties of the Atlantic City pageant have transformed into well-rounded, modern women in athleisure, leaning into fitness and swimsuit looks. In the Miss America Competition, women really can do it all: wear a bikini, five-inch heels, huge earrings, AND walk around in tiny circles with their hands on their waists. I understand how hard ABC is trying to salvage this competition from the aura of sexism and superficiality that surrounds every beauty pageant. Unfortunately, all of that work was immediately undone by a shot of Mark Cuban diligently taking handwritten notes while staring at a woman walk down a runway in a thong bikini.
Twelve contestants advance to the evening gown round. Harrison insists that, “This isn’t a fashion show.” Instead of superficially examining these garments, Chris Harrison urges to judges and the audience to really home in on these women’s bodies and faces. You may have come for the rhinestoned fashion disasters, but you’ll stay for the informative voiceovers.
Miss California tells us that her No. 1 style icon is Nina Dobrev. Other cited runway inspirations include Kendall Jenner and Amal Clooney. It’s hard to say what would offend Amal Clooney more: being lumped together with Kendall Jenner, or being name-called in a beauty pageant runway show that includes more than one built-in cape. Miss Iowa thoughtfully informs us that there is a time and a place for sexiness—on a red carpet, sensuality is a go, but you should probably keep it in your pants when you’re visiting a pediatric cancer ward. Take notes, ladies. As always, Miss America is an intoxicating cocktail of retro femininity and 21st century womanhood—a mod podge mood board of wedding gowns, musings on modesty, and Lady Gaga’s latest runway look.
Next we flash to a 9/11 tribute, in which we learn that the Miss America Competition was “America’s first public event” televised after the towers fell. A contestant at the time recalls praying with her fellow competitors for guidance, before ultimately deciding to go forward with the pageant. As stock images of candles and American flags flash across the Atlantic City arena, the reigning Miss America sings a ballad and Chris Harrison frantically gestures at the producers to pick up the pace.
It’s time for the talent show! Miss California does a tumbling routine in front of Gabby Douglas, as if the Olympian hasn’t endured enough already. A tasteful sign flashes at the bottom of the screen, notifying us that Miss California was a Super Bowl cheerleader. Miss New York reps with a “jazz standard” and Miss Mississippi performs a very gentile rendition of “A Piece of Sky” from Yentl. Miss Texas graces the stage with three batons. As she opens her legs to the heavens and twirls a stick skywards, we learn that this contestant knows pi to 25 decimal places. The producer behind these artfully selected factoids is a national treasure, and possibly the funniest person I will never know.
Miss Maryland sings “God Bless America,” because someone had to. On a scale from Ryan Lochte in Rio to Russian Spy, how unpatriotic is it is to say that I really hated this performance? Miss Washington tap dances to Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud,” which is something that people don’t do enough on prime time television. Miss Iowa performs ballet en pointe to the music of Pirates of the Caribbean, which is something that people should never do on prime time television.
The 2017 Miss America Competition sinks to the nadir of #SponCon with an Atlantic City tourism ad in which the women lip-synch to Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
Miss Tennessee picks up the proverbial talent baton and runs with it, belting The Eagles’ “Desperado.” I don’t know if it was all the Sally Hanson Airbrush LegsÒ aerosol toxins in the arena or just the magic in the air, but I was straight-up moved by this performance. Miss South Carolina, who was apparently a fairy godmother in training at Disney World, performs an interpretive dance to Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water.” Maybe don’t quit your day job? Two contestants, already in full performance garb, are informed that they have not been chosen to showcase their talent. Miss Kentucky, who is wearing a sequined black chapeau, will not get a chance to perform her violin cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” because apparently I’m not allowed to have nice things.
Now it’s time for the segment we’ve all been waiting for: the final question round. This portion of the competition amounts to 20 percent of each candidate’s overall score, and the co-hosts keep emphasizing that it’s by far the most stressful part of any beauty pageant. These women have just done full death drops in high heels and caught batons in splits, yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that offering a lucid personal opinion on camera is the true challenge. Also, this segment wouldn’t be so difficult if the Miss America organization didn’t go in so hard on these questions. The judges immediately reveal that they’re not here to make friends, asking first contestant Miss South Carolina if the U.S. has an immigration problem. What Mark Cuban and Ciara DIDN’T know is that Miss South Carolina is actually a quarter Japanese. She spins some A+ 20-second immigration treacle and the audience eats it right up.
In quick succession, the girls are grilled on the implications of Gretchen Carlson’s allegations against Roger Ailes, Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protest, and biased media coverage of the 2016 election. The resulting rhetorical maneuvers are more impressive than any back handspring or vocal run. One contestant actually uses Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter in the same sentence; Miss New York manages to recast her clear discomfort with Donald Trump as a rallying cry for patriotism, unity, and political action: “I think he’s a bright reminder of how our country needs to come together… As Americans, we need to make sure that we are celebrating all people from all backgrounds, whether you're an immigrant, or a Native American, or an African-American, or an Asian-American.” Meanwhile, Miss Maryland completely strikes out when asked to “grade the media,” claiming that she completely supports both candidates and wishes that the press would, too. The camera pans to Ciara, who looks like she just got a 3 a.m. text message from Future. But the segment truly descends into madness with the final two questions: “Donald J Trump, what do you think of him?” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton. What do you think?” You have twenty seconds, you’re wearing a full-length gown, and you don’t want to disappoint Gabby Douglas. Go!
The competition culminates, naturally, in the passing of the crown. Chris Harrison divulges, “You know I love drama,” and it’s the most authentic thing I’ve heard in two hours. Betty Cantrell, the reigning Miss America, breathlessly recites all of her charitable endeavors, remembering to thank her official gown provider first and foremost, and her family second. Harrison plays up the runner-up announcements for all they’re worth—which is, technically, a good amount of scholarship money—before announcing the 2017 Miss America: Miss Arkansas, Savvy Shields.
The Miss America Competition is an America microcosm: at times spastic, contradictory, heartfelt, sensationalist, sincere, inspired, and a little bit stupid. Contestants pray during commercial breaks and shill sponsored content between segments. Women boast about modesty and public service, model bathing suits, and pretend to find Chris Harrison charming, all while keeping their eye on the prestigious title and the six-figure salary that comes with it.
Beauty pageant contestants, long lambasted as inarticulate, retrograde artifacts, could be more accurately described as working a system that progressive gender politics has left behind. If anything, these women are far too good for this competition—talented, poised, ambitious—but too smart to let a mildly insulting bathing suit catwalk discourage them from playing the game. At the end of the pageant, a lucky handful of contestants earn a whole lot of scholarship money, apathetic channel surfers are mildly entertained, and Chris Harrison got to spend an entire night not thinking about Nick Viall.
The 2017 Miss America Competition: not so bad after all!