Here She Comes, Miss (Zombie) America

September 15, 2014, 11:44 am


Feminist protesters on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, 1968

In case you are interested, Miss New York, Kira Kazantsev, was crowned Miss America 2015 last night. This makes the third Miss America in a row to be a New Yorker. Fittingly, she also bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Joan Rivers.

In case you are still interested, go here to read an incoherent post by a former beauty queen (now a “relationship expert”) about why feminists should not shame the pageant contestants for wanting to be pretty. If feminists don’t like the pageant, she argues, we feminists can send the contestants to college ourselves. Listen, my sweet, we do: it’s called paying taxes.

And in case you are not yet sated with Miss America trivia, you can read about the fact that Miss Ohio, MacKenzie Bart, wanted to be the first ventriloquist to win the crown. Even I know that isn’t a viable talent at the national level, and one wonders whether all that time spent practicing to be a ventriloquist might have been spent on another talent, like — science. Or critical thinking. Or studying to be a relationship expert.

The last time I wrote about the Miss America Pageant was in 2012, and there is a reason I skipped 2013. That post, in which I argued that the pageant is not only sexist and dated, but dull, became the most unexpected source of hate mail I have ever received. I traced some of it back to a Miss America bulletin board, where women who run pageants at every level were hopping mad.

The general consensus among Pageant fans was that the source of my destructive view of Miss America lay in the following pieces of information:

  • I am a lesbian;
  • I am unfeminine;
  • I am a feminist;
  • I am jealous of those who possess true femininity, beauty and grace;
  • I desperately need a “makeover” to improve my attitude.

The first three are true; the final two are truth-y. The part about being a feminist is important: I honestly don’t think you can call yourself a feminist and have personal beauty and charm be the building blocks of a career. I will stand by that until I am in my grave and the Miss America ladies put one of those cheap scepters through my heart.

Although I have changed and expanded my ideas about feminism and femininity over the years, my politics were shaped in the 1970s, when it was a commonly held position in feminism that the commercial and sexual exploitation of women is wrong. That is a minority position nowadays: it now seems to be a commonly held position among younger feminists that should women have the ability to re-code commercial and sexual exploitation as agency, then it is fine, and really has nothing to do with anyone else.

At the same time as I have worked to incorporate new perspectives in my idea of what feminism is, and what it does, my objections to beauty pageants has grown. Why? Not because the Pageant is porny, although it is, but because the contestants are fake, fake, fake. They are fake from their teased hair to the tip of their fuck-me heels. They are just fake women, dieting zombie creatures from an earlier time who get trotted out as if they represent the apex of modern female beauty.

Imagine my surprise last night when, as I was hammering away on a portion of my book about New York Radical Women in the late 1960s, an email appeared from Carol Hanisch! Hanisch, you may recall, was one of the original “No More Miss America” protesters in 1968. Someone who was not there, but who was present for the post-protest analysis told me that it was even Carol’s idea to crown the sheep. (Yes, I am throwing this out there for crowd sourcing.)

It turns out the email was not just for me, but it did contain a link to a great essay by Hanish, “The Awful Truth: Miss America Is Back and Women’s Liberation Has Gone Missing.” It gives a succinct history of the Pageant, pointing out the cosmetic changes that have been made over time that have, ironically, contributed to Miss America’s increasing status as a massive anachronism on high heels. “Now 46 years later, the Pageant is back big time,” Hanisch writes, “making hay off women’s subjugation as a group while simultaneously rewarding a few women for meeting certain beauty and behavioral standards.

However, there’s been a concerted effort to change its image to keep up with the times. In partial response, no doubt, to the mighty WLM of the past: “beauty pageant” has been officially replaced by “scholarship organization.” It has even added a STEM scholarship program in conjunction with Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education and an emphasis on community service provided by contestant volunteers. Miss America wins a $50,000 scholarship (not even a full year’s fees at an elite university), but she travels 20,000 miles a month for an entire year, making speeches and doing promotional work while looking picture perfect—truly arduous work.

The Miss America Foundation claims to be “the world’s largest providers of assistance to young women, totaling more than $45 million in scholarships each year.” If true, this is a sad commentary on how women are valued. The 12,000 women who compete annually are supposedly not really seeking recognition as the most beautiful woman in the U.S., they are competing for scholarships to college where they will focus on their minds! Only commercially beautiful, college or college-bound students need apply, however.

It’s really a nasty system, particularly when you consider that families put far more than $50,000 into a lifetime of dancing, singing and deportment lessons; clothes; makeup; hair; pageant consultants, pageant fees, and travel. It’s no wonder that we learn from time to time that a contestant has been supporting her aspirations by doing porn. The only thing that puzzles me about that is: why not just do porn then?

It is so much better paid than being a beauty queen.

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