Friday, September 12, 2014

9 Things We Didn't Know About Miss America

We live in a much more complicated world than in 1955 when the first telecast of the Miss America pageant aired. Even if you don't plan on tuning in to this Sunday's ABC broadcast of the pageant, it is fascinating to reflect on the history and ponder its place in our contemporary culture.
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Kate Shindle's Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain is both a charming personal narrative about Shindle's experiences as a former Miss America, and a revelatory historical account and critique of the Miss America Organization. We learned so much about this uniquely American institution that we plucked 9 takeaways from the book that stuck with us.

Listen to Kate Shindle's podcast episode (embedded below) and learn what we didn't know about Miss America.


The feminist symbolic gesture of bra burning is a media myth. History remembers activists burning their bras outside the Miss America pageant in 1968. While bras were among the "instruments of torture" placed in the 'Freedom Trash Can' as part of the protest, bras were not actually set ablaze. The New York Radical Women weren't just protesting Maidenform but the "degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol." They also put copies of Playboy magazine and high-heeled shoes in there.
At the Freedom Trash Can, 1968 (Duke University, special collections)


America spoke, and we chose to keep the contestants in swimsuits. In 1995, the Miss America Organization attempted to settle the swimsuit competition controversy once and for all with a call-in vote:
"Seeking once and for all to bang the cultural gavel on the issue, the 1995 pageant incorporated a viewer call-in vote to decide whether this portion of the show would even happen. The well-spun effort—in which the powers that be claimed to be interested in letting the public make the determination about swimsuits—was actually a ringer; the cost of each phone vote virtually guaranteed that the pageant’s fans would dial in greater numbers than its detractors. And they did. About a million viewers spent fifty cents for each vote. Seventy-nine percent of them gave the thumbs-up to the swimsuit competition; since that decisive moment, it has continued without many mea culpas." (pp. 121)
It turns out that broadcasting a contest to choose the most "thoughtful valedictorian" Miss America does not make for sexy television.


Even pageant winners take women's studies classes and bristle at "prissy" stereotypes. During her year as Miss America, Kate Shindle once quipped to a nervous young man picking her up from the airport who jokingly assumed her heaviest suitcase was full of makeup, "Actually, that's the one with all my files on AIDS research."
"And then I feel terrible, because seriously, no need to be a complete bitch to this harmless guy. Except that I don’t think the stereotypes are harmless, because I live with them every day. Every time I show up somewhere and someone makes a crack about how surprised they are that I’m not wearing a gown. Yeah, dude. To a grade-school assembly? Seriously? Or the time I’m invited, and then uninvited, to speak at Stanford, because somebody gets the bug that Miss America won’t be able to relate to the students there. And by 'bug,' I mean 'suggestion from a women’s studies class.' Which I’ve also taken, by the way, at Northwestern. I think I can hang, guys." (pp. 51)

Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality

Reality shows and scholarship programs don't mix. When TLC broadcast the competition from 2007 to 2010, they attempted a few pre-ceremony reality shows where contestants had the clothes in their suitcases critiqued by the hosts of What Not to Wear. Another year, pageant hopefuls were asked to perform such irrelevant tasks as running obstacle courses on a cruise ship and designing outfits from scratch. It didn't go over well:

"There are also reportedly plenty of moments in these long, long days (often going from six a.m. until midnight, with not one penny of pay—which frankly doesn’t even sound legal) during which the producers try to set up conflict between the women. After the first few days, the contestants revolt and demand a meeting where they can voice their concerns. They refuse to be part of a show that is constantly trying to pit them against one another (“Miss West Virginia says she’s against gay marriage! You’re in favor of gay marriage; what do you think of her?!?”) The producers relent; the Miss America executives profess ignorance and horror that these things are going on at all." (pp. 183)


Controversy in the Miss America world isn't always bad for the pageant. Despite having to resign after nude photos surfaced, Vanessa Williams is apparently the most esteemed former Miss America, admired by both academics and journalists and even by the pageant's longtime fans and followers. Academy Award-winning author and former Miss America judge William Goldman says:
"I remember talking to some pageant people and they said that the best Miss America they ever had was Vanessa Williams. Apparently she was just sensational. She was just the most verbal, bright, terrific seller of the Miss America contest they'd ever had." (pp. 87)
Vanessa Williams, pictured at a 1984 press conference at the Golden Nugget.
Press of Atlantic City.


Pageant leadership should remember that old adage, "be careful what you ask for." In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Miss America Organization [MAO] tried to encourage a Miss America who spoke her mind by emphasizing her platform issue, but the pageant leadership wasn't prepared to work with Miss Americas who did just that:
"For more than a decade, MAO had rewarded young women for speaking their minds, both politically and with respect to their platform issues. The crown had elevated Miss America to the point where she had a voice. And this was the first time a Miss America had clearly and cannily used that voice to take the lead and put the organization in its place....the MAO leadership had absolutely no idea what to do with her....the pageant was still hanging on to the antiquated notion that a strong woman must be controlled. It probably was no coincidence that perceived 'manageability' began to pop up in Miss America judging literature and training as one of the critical personality traits for a winner." (pp. 170)

It never occurred to the MAO that a former participant could help guide the future of the program. Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989, host of The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson) was the first former Miss America to be invited to sit on the Miss America Organization's board, but only after 6 former winners solicited for representation:
"We tell the board members what we can offer them—sponsors, media contacts, turnaround specialists. We will call in our favors. We will mobilize other Miss Americas, most of whom are already fired up. Evelyn [Ay] gets choked up. Heather [Whitestone] cries. It’s pretty moving....And we tell them the only thing we want in return: board representation. It’s just stupid that Miss Americas—we who are living, breathing resources with significant experience, energy, and passion—are so underutilized....we do succeed in getting board representation. Two seats, to be exact. Later, three. Somewhat predictably, none of us who attended that meeting is among those chosen. If you speak up, you’re a threat. If you’re not easily managed, it’s better for you to be neutralized." (pp. 181) 

A public school assembly on AIDS delivered by a guest speaker can actually be informative, IF the speaker is savvy enough. It may not be surprising that it was easier to circumvent limitations instituted by high school administrators than the strictures of a multi-million dollar nonprofit organization, but Shindle got really good at dodging all the "don't-says" (condom, gay, etc.) at public school visits:

"Sure, I totally game the system. But what else am I supposed to do? Give a boring, condescending, up-on-a-pedestal speech that provides no information beyond 'just say no' and 'follow your dreams,' when that type of evasion is exactly what's causing AIDS to spread faster and faster and faster?...I tell them that they can ask me absolutely anything. And boy, do they." (pp. 105)
From BeyoncĂ©'s video for Pretty Hurts


Even the most outwardly confident and beautiful women struggle with body image issues. Not only is Shindle open about the problems plaguing the pageant internally, she's also very open about her own body image issues:
"I start to have problems with food. Without getting into the details, I’m overeating and then depriving myself. It’s dangerous and stupid and utterly not who I am—but really, the fact that I do it basically does make it who I am. It’s not unusual for me to burst into tears—big, hysterical tears, no less—if my plan to exercise gets thwarted by some event that runs long. Or if my ever-changing schedule means that I don’t get back to the hotel until after the gym is closed. It’s massively unhealthy, and it doesn’t stop when I give up the crown....It’s so much easier to turn myself inside out trying to make everyone happy—which, of course, is a fool’s errand on its own." (pp. 133)

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