There She Is! Deport the Miss America Pageant.
To be their best selves, women must be unmarried, below the age of 25, and the American standard of beauty (extremely thin but somehow still voluptuous). What message does this send?
According to reports that were confirmed by the Alpha Phi International Fraternity and the Miss America Organization, reigning Miss America Kira Kazantsev was implicated in a hazing controversy when she was an undergraduate at Hofstra University. Kazantsev, who was eventually forced to step down as a sister of Alpha Phi, allegedly instigated and enforced numerous hazing rituals, including but not limited to insulting pledges and critiquing them on their physical appearances.
In response to these hazing revelations, the Miss America Organization issued a statement, arguing that, “it’s unfortunate that this incident and unsourced allegations have been exploited to create a storyline that distracts from what we should be focusing on: Kira’s impressive academic achievements at Hofstra University, including earning a triple major from the Honors College and her commitment to serving her community.” The press release went on to further extol Ms. Kazantsev’s virtue, including the work she’s done to “empower young women.”
This missive could just be read as your standard step-around; an attempt to dismantle a potential PR bomb before it detonates. Alternatively, this one press release can be read as indicative and highly emblematic of the widening gulf between the values and behaviors that the Miss America Organization allows and encourages and the incredibly disparate way that it chooses to present itself and its motives and priorities to the outside world.
Odds are that the Miss America Organization would like you to forget the fact that its annual competition began as a bikini body contest on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The event, which was deemed a “bather’s revue,” was designed to bring business to the boardwalk—literally generating profits off of schlubs for whom ranking women against each other on the basis of physical appearance constituted a good time.
For all its blatant sexual objectification, Miss America’s early iterations were, at the very least, honestly and openly trading in the bodies of America’s young women. The narrative gets more complicated once the organization began to reach for legitimacy, essentially masking and obfuscating, but never truly addressing or rejecting the ideologically backwards and deeply anti-women platform on which the pageant was originally founded.
Reform first came in 1935 when Lenora Slaughter was hired to re-invent the pageant as its new director. During her 32-year reign, Slaughter added a talent section to the pageant, required that all contestants be accompanied by chaperones, and also decreed that scholarship money would be the main form of compensation for all future Misses. During the 1930s, Slaughter also oversaw the official segregation of the competition, ruling that, “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.”
While this law was ultimately repealed in 1950, it’s highly representative of the sort of uniquely gendered policing that the Miss America Organization has been engaged with since 1920. Through articulated rules and unspoken regulations, the Miss America pageant doesn’t just judge women on their physical appearances—an unsettling enough endeavor in its own right—but also produces a specific, highly anachronistic vision of femininity in the form of its reigning champions—an extremely problematic archetype that it then parades all over the country disguised as a “role model.”
A role model is someone whose behaviors one seeks to emulate. In the case of Miss America, these role models are particularly geared towards women. So what message are we sending to women when we tell them that in order to be their best selves, they must be unmarried, below the age of 25, and a perfect representation of the American standard of beauty (extremely thin but somehow still voluptuous)?
Perhaps even more harmful than this highly unrealistic, youthful body type being presented as the ultimate aspiration for all women is the implicit message that whiteness is also a prerequisite for being a perfect female specimen. Despite the official integration of the Miss America pageant, the competition didn’t have its first African-American contestant until 1970, although the organization’s Wikipedia page is quick to note that “African-Americans appeared in musical numbers as far back as 1923, when they were cast as slaves.”
When Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America in history in 2013, her victory was met with extreme backlash, as racists flooded the Internet with insistences that Ms. Davuluri was not a true American, and therefore did not merit the high honor of wearing the Miss America crown. Despite this “historic” election of an Indian-American Miss America (In 2013…) the most recent pageant featured only one African-American contestant in the final fifteen, proving that the Miss America pageant favors reticent tokenism over true diversity—God forbid the race and ethnicity breakdown of the pageant contenders accurately reflects the America we live in, or offers a more relatable role model to young women.
Putting aside the outer homogeneity that Miss America tacitly encourages, there’s also something extremely harmful about the archetype of femininity that the pageant deifies. The Miss America pageant teaches young women that they will and ought to be judged based on their looks, and they should therefore put as much energy as they can into conforming to an agreed upon standard of beauty and preening for the attention of the male gaze.
This is a given. But this old school objectification is naturally accompanied by its stalwart companion, the reinforcement of the Madonna-whore complex. While Miss America competitors are literally parading in bikinis for the pleasure of horny viewers, they are simultaneously expected to be meek, benevolent, totally un-sexual and downright conservative in their comportment. One need look no further than the ban on contestants who have been divorced or have ever been pregnant, whether or not that pregnancy was terminated. These bans were briefly lifted in 1999 by Miss America CEO Robert Beck; they were quickly reinstated, and Beck was fired.
An ideal Miss America isn’t outspoken or unique—she has nice, cookie cutter beliefs on current events that can be condensed in a 20-second answer and delivered in an evening gown and with a smile during the question portion of the competition. The “question” and “talent” segments of Miss America, as well as the organization’s emphasis on winners becoming spokeswomen for various charitable organizations, don’t actually dilute the fact that this is a looks-based competition—they just reinforce the idea that a woman’s greatest talent is being inoffensive and unquestionably good, always sugar sweet and more than willing to lend her beautiful, smiling face to a pre-approved cause.
Any Miss America contestant who betrays herself to be a sexually autonomous being will be quickly sent packing. Look no further than Vanessa Williams, the first African-American Miss America. Williams was pressured to surrender her crown when Penthouse magazine bought and published nude photographs of her without her consent. Naturally, this stain of female sexuality had no place in the modest value system of the Miss America pageant, whose winners must all be beyond reproach—never mind that the commodification of the female form is essentially the Miss America Organization’s bread and butter.
As is clearly evidenced by the bylaw that forbids women who have ever been pregnant from competing in the pageant, an ideal Miss America is a virgin—or at the very least, a woman who hasn’t committed the faux pas of being an undeniably sexual being. There’s no better example of the Madonna-whore complex than a woman who can’t be a known or acknowledged copulator if she wants to compete against other women to be deemed the most sexually desirable. Miss America must occupy the roles of benevolent Madonna and objectified whore—an evocative statement on the highly unrealistic, competing, unnatural and demanding fantasies a woman is always expected to simultaneously fulfill.
One could argue that these are relatively abstract concepts, while the good that the Miss America Organization accomplishes through its scholarship grants is real and unequivocally beneficial to women. This point has merit, but quickly begins to strain after the application of any sort of pressure. The Miss America Organization is indeed the world’s biggest provider of academic scholarships exclusively for women. However, these scholarships are also exclusively offered to Miss America contestants. That means that all of the insane standards detailed above still apply—apparently, in America in 2014 whiteness, “beauty,” thinness, youth, and a degree of sexual purity are more or less prerequisites not just to win a beauty contest, but to merit affordable access to higher education.
Add to this the fact that, as John Oliver proved in a fantastic segment on the Miss America Organization, the organization’s scholarship statistics are less than savory. While they claim to make 45 million dollars in scholarship money available every year, they only end up granting a tiny fraction of that figure annually—yet they have no qualms trumping up these numbers in an effort to reinforce the notion that their misogynistic pageant actually helps women more than it hurts them.
Kira Kazantsev’s hazing scandal simply shines a brighter light on the value system of an organization that dethroned Vanessa Williams on the basis of the nonconsensual dissemination of nude photographs, but refuses to admonish Kazantsev’s blatantly cruel, anti-women behavior.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine the Miss America Organization condemning the objectification, belittlement, and humiliation of women; after all, these are the unspoken tenants of pageantry. What we can imagine and, at this point, ought to expect, is this organization creating “a story line that distracts from what we should be focusing on”—as the Miss America Organization itself accused the media of doing by dwelling on Ms. Kazantsev’s unsavory past.
The story line we’re supposed to buy is that Miss America is pro- women’s education and women’s empowerment when, in reality, their insistence on privileging one old-fashioned archetype of modest, unremarkable, “beautiful” and bikini-ready femininity over all others is anything but empowering.