Last week I was writing a chapter of my new book about radical feminism and decided to begin with the 1968 Miss America Protest organized and executed by New York Radical Women. I may ditch this opening: the more I dig back into the secondary material on women’s liberation, the more I see it turning up as a hook. However, as a result of pursuing this narrative strategy I did something last night that I haven’t done in decades.
I watched the Miss America Pageant.
I didn’t intend to watch it — in fact, it took me by surprise, since for many years the pageant was a summer event. However, the show I really wanted to watch (a complex legal drama called The Firm that seems to have several plots running at once and involves the witness protection program) was delayed by a football playoff game, there was football on another channel, and everything else was dreck as it usually is on Saturday night. So after bellowing “No more Miss America!” and “No more Mindless Boobie Girl Syndrome!” at the teevee a couple of times just to cleanse the political atmosphere, I settled in to watch.
As feminist Carol Hanisch noted in her essay “What is To Be Learned: A Critique of the Miss America Protest,” most of us who were born female and are of a certain age have a long and complicated history with Miss America. Hanisch, who imagined the possibility of the 1968 protest during a consciousness-raising exercise, recalled that “at home with my family watching the pageant as a child, an adolescent, and a college student” the pageant “had evoked powerful feelings.” When feminist comrades at New York Radical Women went around the room so that each activist could contribute her relationship to the pageant, they “discovered that many of us who had always put down the contest still watched it. Others, like myself, had consciously identified with it and cried with the winner.”
NYRW then went out and kicked some serious a$$ on the Atlantic City boardwalk, outside the convention center where the pageant had been held traditionally since 1921. By doing so, they made a bold statement about how so-called beauty ideals hurt women — even, or especially, the women who embodied those ideals successfully. (Little known fact: the winner in 1968 was Debra Dene Barnes, Miss Kansas, whose talent was playing four variations on the theme of “Born Free” on the piano. She went on to be a successful performer and music teacher.)
I disidentified with femininity early on, so my history with Miss America is a little more complicated. I suspect that my motivations for watching were not dissimilar to the ugly, but unconscious, speculative desires of the white folks who went to gawk at Pacific peoples being exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. I marveled at the enormous breasts, the big hair, and the shapely behinds rotating around the stage covered with a slip of cloth. I watched with such consistency that I used to believe I was an excellent judge of which contestants would survive, round to round, into the finals. There, women were asked scintillating questions like: “If you were to become Miss America, how would you use your position to help others?” Contestants usually said they would do things like eliminate hunger, or insist on world peace, then they would smile as a lot of people who had just voted for Richard Nixon cheered wildly. I find the sheer dumbness of this aspect of the contest particularly poignant, since if you go to this section of the pageant website, you can see for yourself that, after earning out a year as a Mindless Boobie Girl, the vast majority of these women became high achievers in business, the professions, education and broadcasting.
After a thirty year absence, I am sorry to report that my skills in picking winners are utterly shot: last night I was right only half the time as contestants moved from round to round. I never would have picked Laura Kaeppeler, Miss Wisconsin, as the eventual winner. Never in a million years. And I think Miss Florida, who was eliminated after the evening wear competition, got utterly hosed. She was one of only two women of color in the entire pageant, and the only one to make it into the swimsuit round (the pageant itself was racially segregated until the NAACP started making a public stink about it, also in 1968.)
But what struck me more than anything was how anachronistic and desperate the pageant seemed: what women’s liberation couldn’t kill, time and a fast-changing culture has. We can start with the fact that Miss America was a) broadcast on Saturday night, a teevee wasteland where unwatched shows gasp their final breaths; and b) scheduled opposite an NFL playoff game which would be sure to kill even a great show. They also seem to have forgotten that at least one of the former Miss Americas they featured on the way to a commercial break was legendarily de-crowned for having done porn prior to her pageant career (something which has not held her back from a successful modeling and singing career.)
What this disastrous scheduling means is that the pageant directors can’t actually sell this particular kind of sexploitation to the networks anymore. I would also say there was just something off about the whole thing. The tiaras seemed tawdry, the hair limp, and the swimsuits were just godawful. The contestants seemed exhausted, and their sunny smiles — with very few exceptions — cult-like. Talents have narrowed considerably from the old days, when contestants used to do interesting things like tap and play the cello at the same time. Miss Oklahoma’s excellent Irish clog dance was about as far out as it got, and the en pointe ballet exhibitions were downright hideous (why would anyone even attempt the Black Swan variation after that movie about the psycho ballerina?) During this stage of the competition, unusual little tidbits of information occasionally appeared across the bottom of the screen that had been chosen to deepen our knowledge of each contestant. ”Drives a truck with a lift package,” we learned about Miss Oklahoma, for example. My goodness. I kept expecting one that said “Volunteers to worm abandoned puppies!”
As I understand it, beauty pageants are still quite popular on the local level, which makes it all the more peculiar that the Miss America directors can’t seem to decide what they want this one to be or what kind of an audience is likely to watch it. Sticking stubbornly to the classic swimsuit, evening wear, talent and interview format, they have updated the pageant in unconvincing ways: for example, the script included frequent references to the fact that these women are beautiful and smart.
A weirder form of updating was what seemed to be a persistent desire to articulate the pageant as a reality show which, given that a beauty pageant is about artifice, seemed like a poor choice. All the judges came from various reality shows (of which I have only vaguely heard) as if this made them real celebrities like the movie stars and athletes who used to judge the pageant. I still don’t get it why there is an audience for the daily life of lightweights like the Kardashian sisters, or the Osbourne family, who are not beautiful and not smart. I mean to investigate this someday, but why would you deliberately compare Miss America to such trash? Have the producers lost sight of what glamour actually is? Have all the gay men in Hollywood abandoned television and gone to law school?
But the organizers also seemed to think that reality show devices would also heighten the suspense of a pageant whose rules don’t make any sense anyway and in which the contestants are virtually interchangeable. Last night, for example, after swimsuit, we were told that the contestants who hadn’t made it into the swim suit round would be allowed to “save” one of the three contestants who had not been picked by the judges for evening wear. They would do this by running around the stage and lining up behind the loser they favored. Then someone from Price Waterhouse counted the contestants, something you probably don’t need an accountant to do, and the loser with the most adherents was rushed offstage to jump into her gown.
I believe it was Miss Texas who was “saved” in this exciting way: whoever it was emerged minutes later in a dress featuring a humungous bow on the right shoulder that someone should have had the nerve to discuss with her ahead of time. But this was also the moment when I discovered, to my great horror, that they had ditched my favorite “loser” award from pageants past: Miss Congeniality. The award was always voted on by the contestants, and was given to the contestant who they thought was the nicest person (i.e., the contestant who was perceived as least likely to succeed in her bid to become Miss America.) This category, in itself, has become at least as iconic as Miss America, and is often deployed in a snide way about a woman who is having a hissy fit or is simply an all-around tw^t: “Well,” (snigger) “I guess SHE won’t be winning Miss Congeniality!”
Maybe this colloquialism is why they ditched the award. The pageant organizers have also disposed of the ensemble dance numbers that have been historically staffed by the first round losers. Instead, this cast of forty sat around as an on-stage audience, beaming, and watching their luckier sisters parade around the stage.
What really shocked me (aside from the contestants unnerving little-girly hairless bodies and the 1980s hairstyles that remind you of nothing more or less than My Little Pony) was the puny amount of money awarded to the ultimate winner of the pageant. If I understand it correctly, a $50,000 scholarship comes with the crown, even though the Miss America Foundation distributes another $45 million in scholarships every year to participants at all levels so the winner has probably picked up some loot earlier. $50,000 is a truly pathetic prize in a day and age when other game shows ask: “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” I could not find a single game show online whose ultimate prize was not at least a million dollars, and many contestants walk away with several hundred thousand dollars by being able to do things like fling themselves through a foam obstacle course successfully. Reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother also have prizes in the hundreds of thousands, and you dedicate less than the minimum of two years that it takes to become Miss America.
Whatever you think of Miss America as a concept, this strikes me as simply ungenerous, un-classy and exploitative. 50K covers about a year at Miss Wisconsin’s alma mater, Carthage College, and is dirt wages for spending the year running around from pillar to post making appearances, which is what Miss America does after being crowned. Then — like other Miss Americas — she will probably go on to have a great career. But you have to wonder whether she couldn’t have just had the career and skipped the part about being Miss America.
As a grand finale, here is the post-pageant broadcast from Milwaukee (I would embed it, but embedding has been disabled) which features the Executive Director of the Miss Wisconsin organization, Jean Schmal commenting on Kaeppeler’s “character,” and I quote: ”She is a beautiful woman. Everyone keeps saying that to all of us, how beautiful she is, and the thing that impresses me the most about her is that she is just as beautiful on the inside. Her heart is as beautiful as her beautiful face.”
Beautiful, isn’t it?