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Let’s just scrap the Miss America pageant entirely

The century-old beauty contest is straining to change with the times, but our culture has already left it behind.

How is this still a thing? (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
How is this still a thing? (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When the 51 women representing every state and the District of Columbia gather together September 9 in Atlantic City to parade across Boardwalk Hall, they won’t need to pack a bikini or an evening gown to compete for the coveted crown, sash, and floral bouquet that comes with being Miss America 2019.

That’s because for the first time in the event’s history, the higher minds behind 96-year old beauty pageant have decided that the women vying for the title “will no longer be judged on outward physical appearance.” Bye-bye, bikinis and swimsuit competition. Farewell, sequined gowns and high heels. This is, as the event’s organizers announced earlier this week on their “new website,” a “new show” and a “new experience.” There, she is: “Miss America 2.0.”

Miss America organizers have declared that judges will evaluate the candidates’ “talent” by having them rely on smarts, not pulchritude. What’s more, they say that the contest is no longer a beauty pageant. Instead, it’s been rebranded as a competition. “Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment,” Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Miss America Organization’s board and the former Miss America of 1989, said in a statement.

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But does any of this new-fangled marketing point to change for the better? I don’t think so. The good folks at Miss America — which is, at least, now led by women, in the wake of the repulsive email scandal that took place under the pageant’s previous male leadership — might have been better served to shutter the whole shebang rather than attempting to smear lipstick on this anachronistic pig.

Let’s face facts. From the inaugural Miss America contest in 1921 to its current iteration, the point of this sexist spectacle has always been to allow attractive women to strut what their mommas gave them before the critical gaze of judgmental men in a beachfront setting. In bygone days, modesty dictated the “girls” — who at the time were exclusively white all-American types — wear one-piece bathing suits. But as the times changed, and Miss America adopted the more libertine values of the era, bikinis and high heels proved more alluring and revealing, especially in the ogling lens of the television camera. Women of color gradually found their way into the competition; on occasion, even winning the pageant.

Along the way, the pageant was glossed up and advertised as a talent show whose purported aim was to lavish deserving strivers with academic scholarships. In 2014, John Oliver and the researchers at HBO’s Last Week Tonight undertook an investigation of Miss America’s scholarships claims and discovered that it was nothing but a sleight-of-hand scam. But that’s beside the point: Nobody really bought that argument, anyway. Anyone with half a brain knew that Miss America existed to sell a low-grade sex appeal.

Of course, a beauty pageant that might have titillated Americans during the Depression can’t compete against today’s digital sex on-demand or presumably soon-to-come VR porn. But there are reasons to be hopeful as well. The fact of the matter is that social and demographic changes are afoot, reshaping the very national value system that created (Miss) America.

Fresh evidence of this comes on a regular basis. For example, consider the horribly sexist and racist faux pas that Inside Tennis reporter Bill Simons recently committed during an excruciating interview with Serena Williams, who was at the time preparing to play Maria Sharapova in the French Open.

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Simons, apparently a Williams fan, told the tennis superstar that he’d wanted for 14 years to ask her a specific question. That question was bizarre, to say the least — the sort of inquiry that compared assumptions of Sharapova’s white female beauty with racist presumptions of Williams’ black brutish strength.

“After the 2004 Wimbledon match with Maria, I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump on his L.A. golf course, and he said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly alluring and then he came up with his incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her supermodel good looks,” Simons said. “My question is: Have you ever been intimidated by anyone on a tennis court, and what are you thoughts about that occurrence?”

I could almost imagine a white sports announcer saying such folderol during the first womens’ singles competition on the courts of Roland Garros back in 1897. Yet, Williams was more than  graceful in her reply. “I honestly don’t have any thoughts about that,” she said. “I can’t say I have been intimidated by anyone. That’s all. That’s it.”

Leave it to Alexis Ohanian Sr., Williams’ husband, to rally to her defense with the perfect tweet:

Eventually, Simons got the message and later apologized, offering a tweet of his own:

The entire episode might have been avoided had Simons truly comprehended the changing value system where (white) men — like he and Trump — don’t get exclusive rights to define beauty or even the terms of engagement of the nation’s culture and sexual politics.

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Right now, the #MeToo movement is perp-walking former Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein to a criminal trial for his grotesque exploits which, in an ill-fated attempt at introducing a legal defense, were briefly likened by his attorney Benjamin Brafman to typical misadventures on the Hollywood “casting couch.” Lawyer Ron Kuby, in an interview with the New York Daily News, mocked Brafman’s effort as “a bit of a throwback to the late ’50s or the ‘Mad Men’ era,” adding, “But it could have been a viable defense — a generation ago.”

To be sure, Simons is not of Weinstein’s ilk. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to miss the identical, mouldering sexual trope of a privilegedwhite-male past — and the same failure to see a changing culture — that’s in evidence.

The fact is inescapable that our nation is evolving — increasingly and persistently being remade in the images of women, immigrants, and people of all races, religions, cultures and identities. As this happens, so too, must attitudes about beauty, sexuality, and relationships evolve. Otherwise, they will continue to look woefully out of step with the times.

That’s why simply rebranding a beauty contest and dropping the most overtly sexist components completely misses the point. What the new leadership at the Miss America Organization seem to miss, as well, is that there’s no midpoint where sexual abuse or chauvinistic attitudes are “kinda cool” or can be modulated into acceptance within our culture. Sexism – and, yes, that includes Miss America 2.0 – ought to simply be scrapped wherever it appears.