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The US Open and the Miss America pageant illustrate two different ways to view feminist power

Women are defining themselves in very different ways of competition.

NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 8: Serena Williams (L) of USA greets Naomi Osaka (R) of Japan during US Open 2018 women's final match on September 8, 2018 in New York, United States. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 8: Serena Williams (L) of USA greets Naomi Osaka (R) of Japan during US Open 2018 women's final match on September 8, 2018 in New York, United States. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It might appear, on a first and cursory glance, that last weekend’s controversial U.S. Open final tennis match and the revamped Miss America competition have little in common — save the public display of women competing for a coveted title.

But there are vast differences between the two that says a great deal about the status of women and their demands for equality in a male-dominated society.

Whether on the main court of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York or Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, these two very different versions of female empowerment (circa 2018) burst into public view within hours of each other. Only one of them, I would argue, serves the better interest of those of us who care about women’s rights, opportunities, and advancement; the other, well, not so much.

Let’s begin with the good: Despite losing her finals match against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams struck a resounding blow toward toppling the hypocritical patriarchy and sexism that infects not only tennis but all sports with women competitors. Osaka won 6-2, 6-4 in the Saturday finals, a game marred by controversy surrounding Williams’ angry outbursts during the match.

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Outraged by umpire Carlos Ramos’ decision to give her a series of code violation for coaching, a penalty point for bashing her racquet and a game penalty for calling him a “liar” and a “thief,” Williams accused the umpire of sexism in his treatment of her.

“He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’,” Williams said in post-match interviews. “But I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality for all kinds of stuff.”

Of course, even in her moment of painful defeat, she’s absolutely correct. So much so that a wide swatch of the public rushed to her defense, including tennis great Billie Jean King, who wrote an op-ed The Washington Post lambasting a double-standard that wouldn’t have happened to a white, male tennis player:

Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of color. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often. It happens in sports, in the office and in public service. Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself. A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on.

I understand what motivated Williams to do what she did. And I hope every single girl and woman watching yesterday’s match realizes they should always stand up for themselves and for what they believe is right. Nothing will ever change if they don’t.”

As proof, the heads of the Women’s Tennis Association and U.S. Tennis Association expressed support for Williams’ claim of unfair treatment.

Change comes slowly, but always, as Williams demonstrated, with a demand for equal treatment and fair play. Her speaking up for herself didn’t prevail in this year’s U.S. Open, but there’s little doubt that her advocacy on behalf of women will bear fruit for future players.

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Too bad the same can’t honestly be said about the Miss America contest — which brings me to the not-so-good example of feminism that took place last weekend.

To be fair, there’s more than one way to view feminism. Women taking charge and making changes as they see fit is one example, as in the case of Miss America. Another view might be seen as strong-willed women compelling men and institutions to treat women by the same standards as they hold for themselves.

By the latter measure, the Miss America competition is a disappointment, despite being led and restructured by women. The Sunday night broadcast was essentially more of the past, and provided no real or positive advancement of women’s rights or social equality.

True, this year’s contest — re-branded as Miss America 2.0 — was a different, made-for-television show. Under the leadership of new board chair Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America of 1989, the organization bowed to declining viewership and pressures imposed by the #MeToo movement to make the show relevant for a current generation of women contestants.

After recent allegations claiming sexist misconduct and abuse by former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell and other board members, Carlson — who was a Fox News personality and who successfully sued Fox’s CEO Roger Ailes over sexual harassment — took over at Miss America and promptly decided to make changes, including the scrapping of the swimsuit competition.

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“If you look at the history of Miss America, we’ve slowly evolved over time,” said Cara Mund, the Miss America of 2018. “We started as a bathing beauties competition and then we added the talent aspect and the scholarship aspect as more women started going to college. I think now more than ever Miss America will continue to evolve.”

Mund passed her crown on Sunday evening to Nia Franklin, who represented New York and became the 92nd Miss America. She also expressed relief that she didn’t have to wear a bikini to win.

“And I’m happy that I didn’t have to do so to win this title tonight because I’m more than just that,” she said. “And all these women onstage are more than just that.”

Maybe. But as Alanna Vagianos noted in a recent Huffington Post article, the Miss America contest — swimsuit or not — remains a gussied-up beauty-and-talent pageant. She wrote:

One could argue that the pageant itself ― women competing on their physical appearance to win a crown ― was no longer en vogue and generally viewed as sexist. And the swimsuit competition was the most obvious example of just how obsolete the pageant had become.

But nixing the swimsuit competition is just the first in a long list of things that need to be corrected about the pageant.

Currently, Miss America only allows women between the ages of 17 and 25 to compete. (Miss Delaware was stripped of her title and scholarship money in 2014 after the organization found out she “exceeded the age requirement.”) Critics argue that the age requirement peddles a virginal ideal of what women should look like.

This year’s superficial cosmetic changes, I fear, are too little, too late to salvage the antiquated ideal of having women judged and celebrated primarily on their appearance and decorum. That’s not empowering; it’s male-gaze entertainment with a veneer of feminism.

By contrast, Serena Williams’ defiant demand to be treated the same as men in her profession stands far taller as an act of feminist empowerment than winning a beauty contest — even sans bikini.