In an apparent effort to head off #MeToo backlash or simply appear relevant, the Miss America Organization announced this week that contestants can now keep their clothes on during the competition and that they “will no longer be judged by outward physical appearance.” They’re not even part of a beauty pageant, anymore, but “a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment.”
That means swimsuits are out and the evening wear segment isn’t about the gown but the wearer’s strategy to “advance their social impact initiatives,” which she will discuss, presumably, after striding confidently across a stage in heels and sequins.
It all feels a little like when Playboy announced it would stop publishing photos of naked women. That pledge lasted exactly one year. Why? Because it’s a nudie magazine. That’s its thing. Sure, it had some great interviews, but nobody really picked it up because Steve Jobs was in the February 1985 issue — just like nobody tuned in to Miss America because the parent organization gives out scholarship money and puts the winner to work for a year.
People watched because it’s a beauty pageant — one arena that’s always been refreshingly honest about its objectification of women. Unlike the workplace, where it’s often popular to pretend women aren’t treated like toys, beauty pageants proudly run with the idea. They dress them up, rate their parts, pit them against one another and then plop a crown on the winner’s head to make it official: She’s a pretty, pretty princess and an ideal to which we should all aspire, either to be or to have sex with.
That doesn’t mean Miss America hasn’t done some good over the years, promoting service to others, launching entertainment careers, and giving the young and good looking (oppressed as they are) opportunities they might otherwise not get. But those things are secondary to the pageantry.
And of course, it’s also done quite a bit of damage: promoting eating disorders, misogyny and, historically, racism. Heck, in December, Miss America’s CEO was forced to resign after it was revealed he had called participants fat, gross and c-words.
But this is an organization “working to empower young women,” right?
Instead of trying to change its spots, Miss America and other organizations like it — Miss Universe, for example, which includes the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Teen U.S.A. pageants — should die a proper death like the dinosaurs they are.
Miss America started in 1921 as a marketing ploy — a “popularity contest” held by newspapers, I’m chagrined to admit, to increase their circulations. And it continued as moneymaker, for mostly men, for decades, despite protests by women’s groups and others through the years.
But there’s really no excuse for such pageants anymore, whether or not they acknowledge they’re a pageant. The momentum of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements makes that crystal clear. It’s frankly shocking they’ve lasted so long. (But then again, I was shocked Donald Trump — who co-owned the Miss Universe Organization for 20 years — was elected president, so perhaps I’m just naive.)
Of course, ending pageants doesn’t mean women won’t continue to be inappropriately judged on their appearance or that we’ll suddenly value brains over beauty as a society. But it would send a signal that women are at least respected a step above livestock and it’s not OK to openly rate us. Baby steps.
Tricia Bishop is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.