Crowning Glory?

The Real Housewives of Miss America

The Miss America Pageant says it’s about empowering women through education. So why does it treat its contestants like idiots?

Alamy

If the goal was to get 'em talking, last Sunday night's Miss America competition was a roaring success. Factoids! Plastic cups! Ventriloquism! Holiday Barbie! Cheetah attacks! Suffice it to say, the Internet exploded.

As someone who has been on the other side of those Atlantic City footlights, way back in September 1997, I found the 2015 pageant as befuddling as it was buzzworthy. If the producers were simply trying to win the #HashtagOlympics, this was probably the most successful telecast ever. But for a contest that is supposed to be about scholarship and leadership, they did everything they could to entertain viewers at the expense of the women who have been working for years to represent their country and earn some money for school.

ABC certainly exercises a fair amount of creative control over the broadcast; however, Miss America CEO and Chairman — and onetime Hollywood power player — Sam Haskell has been extremely vocal about his stewardship of the pageant's annual show. Haskell was also the second-billed executive producer of last weekend's telecast.

The pre-show, "Countdown to Miss America," had its moments. The strongest performers often miss out on the final night talent competition, which only features the top ten contestants — becoming Miss America is more about consistency than about being a standout in any one discipline — so it was nice to see some of them get their moment in the spotlight. Miss Pennsylvania, a talent winner who did not advance to the finals (and thus wouldn't otherwise have been on television at all) was a lovely surprise and a good representation of talent.

In reality, the pageant's outcome is usually determined by the 10-minute private interview; it's challenging, thought-provoking, and demonstrates most accurately which contestants will be able to handle the media attention that comes with the crown. I was excited to learn that this very important element would be featured as its own segment in the pre-show, when normally, it doesn't make it to primetime for more than a few seconds here and there. Unfortunately, this year’s interviews focused more on the absurd than the substantive. Look, I know that silly moments happen, and that it can be difficult to make sexy television out of college students discussing the annexation of Crimea. But don't tell the audience that, "The Miss America Organization's mission is empowerment through education" (mentioned later in the evening) when the stacked-up interview excerpts include a goat impression, burping the alphabet, not knowing what "Silicon Valley" means, and the perceived victimization that results from being too pretty.

Then, of course, there were those impossible-to-miss factoids. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I despise these. Each contestant fills out a lengthy questionnaire for the production company, providing answers to everything from her favorite movie to her most embarrassing moment. This year's crop was more breathtakingly stupid than ever. We learned that Miss Massachusetts was once attacked by a cheetah and "always picked last at kick ball.” Miss Florida has slapped a shark, Miss Alabama "dreams to perform on Broadway”, Miss Virginia is "terrified of frogs" and Miss New York "loves anything Jane Austin.” (Seriously, producers?) And, as fellow live-tweeter @feldmanadam astutely pointed out, Miss Arkansas was literally singing about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at the exact moment we learned that she "has 130 pairs of shoes."

Similarly, the video selections for each contestant were wildly unequal, for no apparent reason. There's a huge difference between portraying these young women as relatable and making them seem unremarkable. Most people — pageant-savvy or not — would be impressed if they got to spend face time with the contestants. The majority of these women are reliably smart, accomplished, empathetic, educated, and very active on behalf of philanthropic causes. So why does the production team seem so eager to waste valuable (read: branding) TV time making them seem silly? It only undermines their own program. And I doubt there were too many viewers sitting on their couches saying, "Wow, I'm scared of frogs, too! This program is so relevant to me!" No, they flooded social media with a tidal wave of snark.

In general, cognitive dissonance was the order of the day. The pageant did achieve the dubious honor of becoming a masterful example of "show" versus "tell." The audience is told that it's about education, but shown on-screen typos (which the average viewer probably assumes were made by the contestants themselves, but having helped to revise the paperwork submitted by two of this year's top 10, I can say without hesitation that that's very unlikely). They are told that Miss America has evolved, but shown a contestant waxing rhapsodic about Barbie. They are told that these young women are the best America has to offer, and then shown the same young women as an ongoing punchline. They are told that this event is important, and they may, momentarily, set aside their skepticism. But when the pageant itself starts to poke fun at the contestants, organizers should expect that they will lose all credibility.

Laughing at one's own participants is a fine strategy for a show like "I Wanna Marry Harry." But this television show claims to be about something positive and inspiring and valuable. Even Chris Harrison, who has been an excellent host for multiple Miss America shows, dismissively mentioned that he expected to see some of the eliminated contestants "on the next ‘Bachelor.’" Even if he meant no harm by it, nothing screams "the opposite of respecting women for their intelligence and talent" quite like implying that they'd be happy to compete for a husband, if that whole paying-for-college thing doesn't work out.

After all of the pageant’s efforts to entertain — even at the expense of the women competing — the ratings still took a significant tumble. The pageant searched for a silver lining and tried to spin their lowest-ever broadcast ratings (7.1 million and outside of last week's top 10) into some kind of success. The resulting press release focused primarily on the gigantic social media response, glossing over the reality that most of that buzz was negative. CNNMoney reported the news under the headline "Miss America: TV Loser, Twitter Queen." A subsequent Salon piece called the event "a must-see hate watch," although the author did encourage critics to lighten up on the contestants themselves.

What this portends for next year and beyond is cringeworthy. Miss America seems to have lost the ratings battle. Perhaps organizers will simply give up and settle for chatter. (After all, it worked for Sharknado 2.) More than anything, though, my heart goes out to the contestants and the new Miss America, Kira Kazantsev, a domestic abuse activist who deferred acceptance to Notre Dame Law School until she finishes her year with the crown.

Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor about this subject, but that's a direct result of spending 12 months working to convince the public of what I thought was Miss America's purpose: the empowerment, through activism, service, and education, of our next generation of female leaders. Kazantsev, a daughter of Russian immigrants who is fluent in three languages, gave a terrific post-crowning press conference in which she demonstrated that she is passionate, articulate and real. But I suspect that she will now spend quite a lot of time being asked about trivialities, rather than the very real work she has done to make the world a better place.

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Sure, some of this is inevitable. But most could be avoided, if the producers weren't so desperate for eyeballs that they sold out their best asset — the bright, socially conscious women who aspire to the title — as a joke. The pageant came back to Atlantic City and, appropriately, took a big gamble. Unfortunately, that gamble was at the expense of Miss America's supposed mission. Here's hoping that next year, they don't double down.