As our most important democratic institutions continue to crumble and slip like sand through our fingers, it’s good to know that at least one time-tested tradition is immune to governmental stupidity/congressional malice/obstruction of justice/light treason/Russian intervention. We speak, of course, of the great American ritual of lining abnormally thin women up like candlepins and judging them on their appearance, poise, and posture. Because while administrations may come and go, ogling women in swimwear and ranking them accordingly is forever.
Talking about “feminism” and the Miss USA pageant is like discussing whether or not Bernie Sanders “would have won”—it’s beside the point, and it’s not very fun. Grilling pageant contestants on their personal politics is bound to lead to confusion and disappointment, and anyone searching for a truly radical contestant will inevitably find themselves sitting through multiple Cirque du Soleil performances and Julianne Hough monologues before finally figuring out that there isn’t a future Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis in the bunch. This isn’t to say that pageant contestants can’t be feminists or womanists, or that a competition that funds women’s futures can’t be considered inherently feminist (although the whole “judging beautiful women on the basis of their appearance” certainly complicates things). But if you’re channel surfing on a Sunday night in the hopes of getting your feminist rocks off, you’re probably better off skipping the pageant Q&A portion.
This past Sunday, the Miss USA pageant offered a master class in what can go wrong when you ask pageant contestants policy questions that even politicians can’t seem to answer. During a 30-second, necessarily superficial opinion round aptly sponsored by theSkimm, Miss Minnesota, Miss Illinois, Miss South Carolina, Miss New Jersey and Miss District of Columbia were asked to speak to some of the most important issues currently facing our nation. While come contestants got off relatively easy—high teen suicide rates=bad, social media=good but sometimes bad—Miss D.C. was forced to grapple with whether healthcare in America is a right or a privilege. To be fair, thirty seconds is now the approximate time increment that any American gets to express an opinion before the counter-screaming or commercial break cuts in. Accordingly, Kara McCullough’s problem wasn’t brevity, but the upshot of her brief remarks: “I’m definitely going to say it is a privilege. As a government employee, I am granted healthcare and I see firsthand that to have healthcare, you need to have jobs.” That, my friends, is a healthcare mic drop.
McCullough’s controversial comments are a far cry from the stereotypical pageant pleas for peace on earth. The D.C. contestant’s fiscally conservative fantasy came as a shock to some of McCullough’s fans, who had spent the pageant lead-up praising her on everything from her natural hair to her professional competence. In many ways, McCullough is the perfect pageant contestant for the “I really shouldn’t be watching this beauty pageant” set. The 25-year-old African-American scientist works for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and competes on a platform of supporting women and girls in STEM fields.
McCullough further scandalized viewers when she was asked if she considers herself a feminist—again, must we do this? —only to respond, “As a woman scientist in the government, I’d like to transpose the word feminism to equalism…I try not to consider myself this die-hard, like, I don’t really care about men.” Bad news for the handful of Miss USA watchers who wanted to see a misandrist finally take the crown (also bad news for anyone who knows that the literal definition of feminism is the struggle for gender equality). You may disagree with McCullough, but I, for one, have to commend her for actually articulating her beliefs, instead of pulling a page from the Ivanka Trump “feminist” playbook of random verbs and nouns.
Despite or perhaps due to her polarizing responses, McCullough ended the night as Miss USA. In an interview after the event, she clarified her personal brand of not-feminism, adding, “I just want to encourage so many women nationwide to find their passion in any subject possible and understand that nothing is difficult if you really, truly put the work in for it.” Of course, millions of women who have “put the work in for it” only to find themselves discriminated against, undervalued, or passed over may beg to differ.
In so many ways, this year’s Miss USA competition was one step forward and two steps back. The pageant faces particular scrutiny as a former pet project of our very own President, Donald Trump. From 1996 to 2005, Trump owned Miss Teen USA, Miss Universe, and Miss USA—very presidential. His pageant participation came to an end in 2015, when NBC decided to sever ties on account of the Presidential candidate’s racist campaign statements against Mexicans. According to TMZ, Trump’s stint on the pageant circuit was chock-full of alarming incidents. Allegedly, Trump instituted “The Trump Rule.” As The Daily Beast previously reported, “the ex-reality host would oversee a pre-screening of the Miss USA contestants in revealing outfits and play his own personal game of Hot or Not, dividing the women into groups. He’d then demand that each beauty contestant name another contestant they felt was the most beautiful, and separate the contestants accordingly.”
Former Miss California Carrie Prejean described Trump’s tactics in her autobiography Still Standing. “It became clear that the point of the whole exercise was for him to divide the room between girls he personally found attractive and those he did not,” Prejean noted. “Many of the girls found this exercise humiliating. Some of the girls were sobbing backstage after he left, devastated to have failed even before the competition really began to impress ‘The Donald,’” she continued. “Most of us respected Donald Trump as an amazing businessman and leader—and certainly I still do. But we naturally felt sorry for the girls who were left in the ‘reject’ line. Even those of us who were among the chosen couldn’t feel very good about it—it was as though we had been stripped bare.”
Now that the Miss USA competition is no longer under Donald Trump’s tiny, grope-y thumb, it’s easy to interpret aspects of the pageant’s progress as something of a clap back. For example, there’s the fact that this year’s list of finalists was impressively diverse. Miss Alaska is a member of the Native Tlingit tribe, runner-up Miss New Jersey speaks Hindi and practices traditional Indian dance, and Miss Missouri is the first ever African American contestant to be crowned in her state, to list just a few examples. Additionally, this year’s pageant featured five immigrants vying for the title. While accurately reflecting the ethnic diversity of our nation might seem like a no-brainer, if last year’s Miss Teen Universe Becky-gate taught us anything, it’s that we’ve still got a long way to go.
And so our newly crowned Miss USA—the second D.C. contestant to take the crown in as many years—complicates things, to say the least. She’s undeniably smart and charismatic, with all the glamour and pageant poise of Melania Trump, and all of the hometown pride of someone who actually lives in D.C. At the same time, her personal opinions have quickly elevated her to the status of ultra-conservative shero. On Fox & Friends, columnist Kristin Tate announced that McCullough’s win was a triumph of “true diversity.” “A lot of people making these nasty attacks say that they are feminists,” she opined, “Yet they’re tearing down this strong woman because, again, she doesn’t fit their narrative.” The Laura Ingraham-founded LifeZette offered this hot take: “The reactions to McCullough's answers showed that the Left has a deep love for diversity, except when it comes to political opinions that don’t precisely match theirs.”
Naturally, the Twitter debate was heated, with left-leaning users announcing that McCullough was cancelled, and right-wingers mocking the arguably fickle #LovingandTolerantLeft. For every tweet, there was a counter tweet. But as Sunday night’s dust settled, we were left with a strange, uncomfortable truth: Trump’s America will be sending a conservative Miss USA to represent our deeply divided country at this year’s Miss Universe.