Miss America Is Canceled This Year. We Don't Have To Do It Next Year Either. Or Ever Again.
In 1969, about 200 feminists gathered in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America pageant — they crowned a sheep "Miss America" to draw the comparison to treating women like livestock, and they put bras, girdles, pots and pans, and other housewifely accoutrement into a trash can and set it on fire. This would be pretty much the only time anyone ever actually did that, and yet for years and years we would hear about feminists "burning their bras."
But they weren't wrong. The Miss America pageant, especially back then, was obviously a very sexist affair. No one was asking men to parade around in their bathing suits so that a bunch of judges could rate their bodies on a scale from 1 to 10.
This year, there won't be one. Not because it's sexist, but because it's postponed due to COVID-19. It was supposed to be a big one, too — the 100th anniversary of the pageant. But maybe 99 years is enough.
In recent years, there have been various attempts to modernize the pageant and to make it feel less overtly sexist. A lot of emphasis was put on winners getting scholarships and, in many cases, a leg up in their careers. The questions they were asked during the interview portion were increasingly serious, in order to demonstrate that the women competing were not just pretty faces. In 2018 it was announced that the pageant would eliminate the swimsuit competition entirely and that contestants — who would no longer be judged solely on physical beauty — could wear whatever they want in the evening gown portion of the event.
These changes are good and they are welcome. But they do not really do much to answer the question of "Why the hell are we still even doing this?"
Quick! Who is the current Miss America? What channel is it on? When was the last time you even watched it? I think the only time I've watched it in recent years was when 2018's winner Nia Franklin was singing Quando M'en Vo (Musetta's Walz) from La Boheme, and only because someone told me it was happening (I am notably very fond of Puccini). I think the only Miss Americas I can even name (I admittedly had to look up the other one) are Vanessa Williams, Kate Shindle, and Gretchen Carlson. I thought Anita Bryant was one, but it turns out she was just a runner up.
At this point, it feels like a thing we do because "tradition" and not because anyone is particularly clamoring for it — which is never a very good reason to continue doing anything. If it didn't already exist, if we hadn't been doing it for 99 years already, it seems pretty unlikely that someone would come up with it today. The idea of parading women around on a stage to select the "best" one just seems like a strange thing to do. And sure, we do that with a lot of reality shows, but usually it is with the aim of those people launching a particular career, not just being "the best overall woman, just in general."
I mean, just listen to the theme song:
There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
The dream of a million girls who are more than pretty can come true in Atlantic City
For she may turn out to be the Queen of femininity
There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
With so many beauties she took the town by storm
With her all-American face and form
And there she is
Walking on air, she is
Fairest of the fair, she is
There she is - Miss America
The Queen of femininity? Really? It just doesn't feel like that's who we are anymore. Or who we want to be.
The Miss America pageant was biggest at a time when women didn't really have a whole lot of options, compared to men. When it was a way for a woman to make a name for herself, and in a way, that somehow justified its continued existence despite the swimsuit competition. You gotta do what you gotta do. I have a lot of respect for the talent of many of these women — even when that talent is baton twirling. It's still a skill and it's still something someone worked hard at.
But these days, if someone wants to show off their baton-twirling skills, man or woman, they can go on America's Got Talent. They can put it on the internet and become world-famous for their awesome baton-twirling. We have a lot more options and a lot more freedom now, and beauty pageants just seem like a relic from a time when we didn't.
Modernizations aside, the fact that there is no real equivalent of this for men, nor many/any men scrambling to have their own widely televised beauty pageant, is the only sign we need to show that maybe there's no real way to turn it into something that doesn't feel extremely outdated and, yeah, pretty sexist. Maybe it's just time to let it go.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. In addition to her work at Wonkette, she also has a biweekly column at Dame. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse