Maria Cahill, Miss Delaware 2011, has become the latest pageant contestant to make right-wing news hay by suggesting that, during her run as her state’s representative, she was told it would be better for her not to express her pro-life views while she was representing the Miss America organization.
I can see why the Miss America organizers might think that way. The days of the pageant’s cachet as a mass cultural event are long over—the first hour of the pageant’s been playing to about 2.5 million people, numbers so bad that even NBC couldn’t find a way to spin them. The competition’s been slagged for its retrograde gender politics for years, and having outspokenly conservative candidates might confirm the impression that Miss America is an organization that represents a small ideological segment of the population rather than celebrating the broad-based best of American womanhood.
But one of the reasons beauty pageants seem boring, as laid out Miss Congeniality, which both poked fun at and redeemed the whole concept of pageants, is because they’ve been bludgeoned into bland inoffensiveness:
I’d be way more interested in watching the pageant if the contestants had actual opinions and personalities that were expressed by things beyond their swimsuit choices. I think it would be reasonable if pageant organizers wanted to counsel candidates on the reactions that have greeted contestants with outspoken opinions, left or right, in the past, and had a plan to connect candidates who become controversial with PR advisors who can help them decide what to do. But they shouldn’t advise them not to speak at all.
In any case, Cahill appears not to have heeded the warnings she was given. And she seems well on her way to becoming the kind of conservative spokeswoman she entered beauty pageants precisely to become. The charges that she was silenced seem pretty thin—it sounds more like she was given advice by unnamed people rather than officially shut down by pageant organizers. But it doesn’t take much to let someone present herself as a martyr. If Miss America is really about the best in American womanhood, the contestants should be offering clear and competing versions of that ideal.