The newly crowned Miss America is hoping to use her platform to draw attention to a topic that she says has been stigmatized for too long: Intimate partner violence and how society can best support women in abusive relationships.
Kira Kazantsev, who entered the competition as Miss New York, is herself a survivor of domestic violence. She was stalked and threatened while in an abusive relationship in college. Kazantsev regularly speaks at domestic violence and homeless shelters, and currently volunteers with Safe Horizon, one of the country’s leading organizations working to support victims of domestic abuse.
“The main goal is to get people talking about it,” Kazantsev explained in an interview with NPR. “If people are willing to talk about it, they’re not scared of it, it’s not taboo.”
The issue of domestic violence was front and center at last night’s pageant. In addition to Kazantsev, several other contestants also chose to focus on the issue in their platforms. And this year’s Miss America judges drew some criticism for asking contestants to weigh in on the recent controversy surrounding former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was dropped from the team after surveillance video showed him punching his then-fiancee. Rice’s wife has chosen to remain with him. “As a woman, what do you think of her decision?” one of the judges asked a contestant — sparking complaints that the question’s framing relied on victim-blaming and pitting women against other women.
Kazantsev is clear about the fact that she doesn’t believe that’s an appropriate question to ask of domestic abuse victims.
“I want people to stop asking, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ ” the Miss America winner told NPR. “Every woman is an expert in her own case, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that lead to a woman staying with her abuser.”
Issues related to domestic violence, as well as questions about how to create a culture that supports survivors, have been dominating the headlines recently thanks to the ongoing fallout from the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice incident. Women’s groups have called on the NFL commissioner to resign, and the feminist activist organization UltraViolet flew banners over several football stadiums this weekend declaring that “Goodell Must Go.” Meanwhile, thousands of women with personal experiences with domestic violence have pushed back on the idea that victims should simply leave under the hashtag #WhyIStayed.
Kazantsev’s comments about victim blaming echo recent statements from Vice President Joe Biden, who — as the original sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act — frequently speaks out on the topic. “This whole culture for so long has put the onus on the woman,” he told the Today Show. “What were you wearing? What did you say? What did you do to provoke? That is never the appropriate question.”
Pageant contestants are increasingly using their spotlight to shed light on issues that may not typically get much attention on the stage. Earlier this summer, Miss Idaho made national headlines for visibly wearing her insulin pump during the swimsuit portion of the competition, bringing more awareness to the millions of Americans living with Type 1 diabetes. And after one of the contestants in this year’s Miss USA pageant was widely praised for having a more “normal body” that isn’t stick thin, it sparked a larger conversation about the media’s unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies.