What Is Miss America, if Not a Beauty Pageant?

The Miss America Competition, which celebrated its 100th birthday this year, has now outlived key parties and manned missions to the moon, the VHS tape and the subway token, the Soviet Union and nitrate film. It outlives even itself, seeming to hang on more because the infrastructure remains in place than from anyone’s active desire to see it. And as last month’s streaming-only broadcast of the centennial pageant indicates, even inertia can get you only so far. People once watched Miss America on broadcast television, tens of millions of them; it was an institution of enough consequence to be worth protesting, as many did. But who needs a pageant these days? If you want to watch women strain to meet an ideal of femininity no person actually desires, you watch “The Bachelor.”

The reason to compete, on the other hand, hasn’t changed since 1945: It’s money, from scholarships and brand deals, and a platform from which to begin a career or initiative. This was certainly the case for Miss New York, Sydney Park, who, as Ej Dickson reported in Rolling Stone, entered the competition “after seeing an ad on Instagram to earn money” for school. And it was Park’s performance in the talent segment that highlighted, for me, the essential weirdness and bad faith at the heart of Miss America: No matter how much it might like to rebrand itself for the 21st century, it cannot escape the ideas of womanhood it was founded on.

Park performed a poem — her own poem — which begins: “When I was a little girl, I was told to sit like a lady.” But of course (the poem goes on) one can do many things “like a lady”: advocate for justice, or become vice president, and so on. Park performed this poem in a white pantsuit, which, if not a deliberate nod toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, was at least a visual rhyme. Her critique of ladylike behavior was delivered while modeling it at the same time — “back straight, chin up,” just as the poem describes, and shod in Louboutins. There was nothing unladylike to be found here, which was the point, but also the problem.

Miss America is not a beauty pageant, at least not to Miss America. It has insisted this since the late 1940s, when its executive director, Lenora Slaughter, told the New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross that “this is not a leg show and we don’t call the beauties bathing beauties any more. The bathing part went out in 1945, when we started giving big scholarships.” This was at a time when Miss America published every contestant’s physical measurements. (It was also segregated, but Slaughter’s apparent concern was that it might seem shallow, not bigoted.) As of 2018, Miss America claims not to judge participants by their appearances at all — it is only by happy accident that its participants are willowy and symmetrical.

Of course, it is a beauty pageant; has been; will be. Is there something wrong with that? Miss America plainly thinks so, or its denials would not be so elaborate and of such long duration. The beauties, it insists, are there to work hard, to showcase talent and accomplishment. Any candidate for the title has worked harder to get there, and harder in general, than I have in my entire life. Miss District of Columbia was getting her Ph.D. after two master’s degrees. Miss Utah, one of my favorites, is the C.E.O. of her own business. Miss Colorado serves in the military. But did millions tune in, for decades, to see women work hard?

Park’s poem frames itself as resistance to the expectations heaped on women, but like the pageant, she doesn’t even go as far as substituting one punishing goal for another — she just piles them on. Today’s ideal woman is still “porcelain perfection”; she just has to be a lawyer too. It’s similar to how Barbie is still Barbie in every sense that matters, but now she’s a scientist.

Beauty, pleasure, the desire to see and be seen — we want to enjoy these things, but we do not like what that enjoyment says about us. On one side we find the embarrassing fantasies of evolutionary psychology, like the notion that women apply lipstick to simulate sexual arousal; on the other we have the popular insistence that beauty rituals are performed purely for personal satisfaction and empowerment. Somewhere in between lies the truth: that beauty is a social creation socially enjoyed, that it’s unequally distributed, that we do it both to satisfy ourselves and to be admired. You wouldn’t put on lipstick in the void, because the void isn’t where you do anything.

But we can’t be here for beauty — that would be gauche, not to mention piggish. When someone has the temerity to look beautiful and try to get something out of it, we’re tempted to punish them. So our taste for beauty is transmuted into a taste for work: the work of looking good, of “staying fit,” of a talent, of social causes, of an advanced degree and a career. Like most things these days, Miss America is a series of résumés, only with evening gowns attached.

Toward the end of Park’s performance, she says, with a head-waggle of exasperation: “If you tell me to sit like a lady, I will sit. … ” But who is asking, let alone telling? There are kinds of womanhood that require walking the line Park does; a first lady, for instance, must select the initiatives least likely to make people angry, the self-presentation least open to reproach, the unimpeachably tasteful Christmas décor. But many don’t. Some games are worth winning for the money, but not to prove a point. Melania Trump seems to have known this, which is why, though I wasn’t sorry to see her go, I was surprised by what she accomplished: turning the job of first lady into a rage-filled performance, never afraid to let us know it was all a stupid waste of everyone’s time.

Beauty, as it exists among and between people, is far more varied and more interesting than the codified look of pageant contestants can ever accommodate. Still, I’d like Miss America much more if it were coldly, openly rewarding women for being beautiful. Give them money. Let them do what they want with it. Don’t pretend that this is about what you can earn through hard work alone. At least the terms would be clear, and perhaps there would be space for interesting aggression from the candidates, instead of poetic tributes to behavior that is meant to be ladylike and not, rebellious and conformist, at the same time.

As it is, Miss America will remain at least a little while longer, outliving a few more things despite the odds. It will continue to provoke frustration at its fundamental dishonesty and also offer money to women who can use it. At its kitschy center sits the perfect symbol of one America: the woman who works, for whom everything is work, whose only passion is work, whose goal is to attain meritocratic credentials, endless little seals of approval, so as to work better and harder, and who could never admit that to make work the point and not the means was to make all that work meaningless in the end. There she is: your ideal.

Source photographs: Bettmann/Getty Images; CBS, via Getty Images; Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

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