Miss USA: Why Beauty Pageants Matter Again

It’s hard to understand the vitriol aroused by a contest where pretty women parade on TV until you realize that beauty pageants have a history of defining the culture they happen in. It’s not a pretty history: eugenics play into it. Crowd control play into it. Sexism abounds. Above all, though, beauty pageants have been a way for American culture to have a conversation with itself about what its ideal woman would a) look like and b) be.

I’m not going to go into the usual objections to beauty pageants. Putting aside the ways in which they oppress women (no argument here—they do), I’m more interested in figuring out what the culture gets out of them. Particularly the culture that’s currently offended—namely, conservative culture. Sexualized images of women are everywhere. What makes the pageant an especially charged community exercise, and why does it bother people so much when it gets decided in an unexpected way?

No one much cares when beauty pageants proceed according to the expected script (I’ll get to what that script is a bit later). Sure, there are quibbles or boozy disagreements, but all in all, the nation shuffles along with whatever beauty takes the crown. A 1975 article in the Washington Post on that year’s Miss America beauty contest describes this vague engagement pretty accurately:

“Nobody ever has the foggiest idea why one girl wins and another doesn’t. Bert Parks, the master of ceremonies, a perfectly preserved specimen of early middle age though he dates from the last year of King Tutankhamen’s reign, made a great point of reminding everybody that Miss America is not, repeat not, a beauty contest. Nor a talent contest. They never used to say that. They only say it now to keep peace among the television audience (and last year the show drew half the viewers watching anything at all) who tend to say: “Waddya mean, Miss Slopebone won? Wadda dog.”

No one knows why one girl wins and another doesn’t, but it’s clear that there are prescribed limits: “Miss Slopebone” is not, whatever her many faults, Lebanese. It’s the unsettling exception—the Carrie Prejean, the Rima Fakih—that activates a particularly virulent backlash, along with strangely urgent demands that there be a recount or a reckoning. What exactly are the critics trying to correct? What are the stakes here?

They’re higher than we think, and for reasons even they don’t fully understand. I don’t need to trawl the Internet to show how bizarre the screeds against the recently crowned Miss USA have gotten, so I’ll anatomize instead. As I see it, the rage about Rima Fakih’s coronation settles into three basic categories that have plenty of overlap between them.

1) Conspiracy: The URL to Debbie Schlussel’s article on the subject says all you need to know, and more coherently than the article itself, which you shouldn’t bother with. Here it is—read it as you would a poem:  http://www.debbieschlussel.com/22000/donald-trump-dhimmi-miss-hezbollah-wins-miss-usa-was-contest-rigged-for-muslima-hezbollah-supporter-miss-oklahomas-great-arizona-immigration-answer/

Schlussel will be glad to know she’s in good company; Celeb Jihad has also called shenanigans on the Miss USA contest organizers:

Given that Rima Fakih is the first Arab-American to be named Miss USA it is more than a little suspicious to find out that she is a complete whore. Obviously pageant officials hell bent on defaming the Muslim world, choose Rima Fakih to win knowing she was nothing more that a wanton Jezebel to embarrass us proud Arabs. There is only one thing left to do to make this right. Rima Fakih must be stripped of her title, dragged into the middle of Time Square, and lashed with bounded reeds by none other than Donald Trump himself.

2) Race/culture/politics. Fox News focuses on whether or not Miss Oklahoma was “sunk” by Oscar Nunez who asked “the immigration question.” This is the category of complaint I find most interesting, not for its crazy content but for how it helps us track the complicated minuet of genetic and cultural categories that constitute the conservative account of “Real American” identity. For many it’s a dormant assumption, but the fact is Miss USA is supposed to represent an ideal average. A representative specimen of Real Americanness. She should be the womanly embodiment of apple pie.

Apple pie is not Muslim! This is a profound point, although it may not sound like one. Racism is in the background and foreground, xenophobia photobombs the discussion, but neither race nor terrorism adequately represent what conservatives are actually talking about.

It’s worth restating: they (and even we, perhaps!) experience the Miss USA pageant as a conference of sorts that stipulates the necessary and sufficient conditions for Americanness. This becomes a problem when the category gets stretched to include Muslims because, in the conservative discourse, the terms are opposed.

A design problem of the Miss USA pageant, and one reason the stakes get so high, is that there’s only one of her. The pageant is really a contradiction in terms: pageants have historically represented communities, but the award in its present instantiation devolves on an individual whose body is her main representative asset. For a solitary body to represent a community is of course bizarre; the pageant, as an instrument of community-building, has never worked in this way. Even Homecoming Queens emerge from a context—a football game, floats, an entire participative panorama of which they are a figurehead.

The beauty pageant in its present practice has none of the features that made pageantry a place to communally practice being an American, but it still retains that cultural function. This is confusing.

To show how pervasive this function of the beauty pageant became, it’s worth taking a look at how other cultures struggling with hybrid identities within America perceived the practice as a point of entry into American culture, while negotiating how exactly they would preserve their own traditions. Here’s Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s take on how the beauty pageant facilitated that cultural transaction in San Francisco’s Chinatown (from her article “Loveliest Daughter of Ancient Cathay,” published in the Journal of Social History):

It’s difficult enough when a body is asked to represent an immigrant population. When it’s asked to represent a nation, the subtext is clear: this will be a statement on what an American is and on what she is not.

That we’ve internalized this function, and that conservative culture has especially, is pretty easily confirmed by a quick glance at your current Fox News programming. Chances are the female reporter is an aggressive specimen of the “American” as codified by beauty pageants of yore. (By the way, the 1922 Miss America is noted as having been “Typically American.” 1940’s Miss America is a “typical American girl; prefers tall men; doesn’t care whether Franklin Roosevelt or Wendell Wilkie wins election.”) These Miss Americas were, like Fox News’ reporters, white, blonde and blue-eyed. 30 Rock has built a season on Fox’s consistency in this respect.

In the wake of Fakih’s coronation and Miss Oklahoma’s loss, Fox News is asking everyone to VOTE as to whether or not she was “sunk.” That the language extends the promise of real representation, due process, is not coincidence. They’re trying to get this verdict on Americanness repealed. However haphazard, however baseless, Miss USA has ostensibly said something new about what an American woman can look like and be.

3) Sex. Now news headlines scream that Rima Fakih has been in the vicinity of, may even have touched—and danced on and around!—a stripper pole. Strip of her crown! they scream, unaware of the irony they drip.

Let’s start with 3) and get some context. To the hyperventilating hanky-holders: reach for your smelling-salts and remember the times we live in. There’s a national conversation happening because incredibly talented eight-year-olds in a dance competition were dressed in fishnets and lace. That’s how normalized faux-stripping and its accoutrements have gotten. It didn’t occur to the hands-on parents involved that there was anything amiss in these costumes.

I linked to Amanda Hess’s take on this because her point bears repeating: what really concerns us about little girls acting like adult women is that we don’t want them to, maybe ever—they aren’t sexual beings we can consume now, and that raises the question of whether we want to consume them and whether we should want to consume anyone in that particular way, even if they’re adults. This is, in short, an opportunity to have a conversation about what kinds of women we want girls to be able to be.

Beauty pageants are, oddly enough, a space for that consensus to be transacted too. More on this in a minute.

First, let’s settle  whether Fakih’s behavior with a pole is relevant. Here are the eligibility requirements to become a Miss USA contestant:

Eligibility requirements: In order to compete in your state pageant and go on to compete in the Miss USA competition, you must meet certain requirements. You must never have been married and not presently be married. You must never have had a marriage annulled. You must never have given birth, be pregnant, or currently be a parent. You must be at least 18 years of age and less than 27 years of age on February 1st of the pageant year you intend to compete in.

That’s it. Nowhere is it stipulated that a contestant limit her proximity to poles. And about those poles: remember that sad-sack figure we like to alternately Desex and Hypersex, the Suburban mom? That virginal commercial mother with the yellow gloves and the Book Club? She, insofar as she exists, takes poledancing classes instead of Jazzercise. If pole-dancing has made it to suburbia, it’s not a useful index of someone’s aberrant sexual experience (which is really what this is all about). Fact is, every year, thousands of vaginas are penetrated with nary a pole in sight. Poles may evoke stripping, but they are not in themselves moral turpentine.

(This reminds me of the anti-Laudian Puritans who campaigned against the Maypoles, but I’m trying to stay on track here.)

Objection 3) can be safely dismissed. It’s not a problem—not legally, not ethically. Onward.

Let’s go back to 2). Race. Politics. Culture. And note that, mere days after demanding the removal of the veil in the name of Christopher Hitchens (and, incidentally, oppressed Muslim women everywhere), here we are, trying to measure and prove a Muslim woman’s sexual excess and punish her for it.

Are we really this misguided?

Yes. We’re confused. And that confusion can’t quite be chalked up to idiosyncrasy or race hate or the boneheaded kind of conservatism (though these can clearly help). There are reasons underlying Fox News’ anaphylaxis to Fakih, and they go beyond Schlussel’s moronic conspiracy theories. The real reason, I think, is that the beauty pageant has a long, long history in the US, and its outcome is an annual rehearsal and renegotiation of the genetic and cultural grounds on which citizenship and representation are based.

There’s real anxiety here, and it’s not new. Our history’s roots are showing. So Miss USA, against all odds, has become relevant to the cultural conversation.

It pains me to say this, but regardless of the fact that Miss USA got started because the Miss America winner refused to pose for publicity pictures in a bathing suit; irrespective of Miss USA‘s elimination of the “Talent” portion of the competition, making it difficult to take it seriously as a “scholarship program”; setting aside that if Miss America is Victoria’s Secret, Miss USA is Frederick’s of Hollywood, and that in SAT parlance Miss America: Doris Day::Miss USA:Veronica Lake; overlooking, moreover, that the self-proclaimed guardian of feminine virtue is a man whose moral bankruptcy trumps his financial ones, let’s look at how beauty pageants in general—and Miss USA in particular—became the site of a major annual “Real” American conversation.

To understand this, it’s worth taking a look at how the history of the pageant shaped early twentieth-century American communities. Richardson Wright writes warmly about the pageant’s social function in the September 1919 issue of Art & Life. He praised it for two things: flattening class distinctions (such that the high-class lady bowed to the plumber in a local play) and—more importantly—making a community amenable to orders and consensus. He explained American docility as a function of the pageant, which he paints as proto-military and characterizes as a school:

But these past years have only served to prove a point that the pageant sought to sustain—given a topic or centre of interest, an entire community, and entire nation can be taught to act in unison. Under the spell of a great ideal and marshalled by capable leaders, a crowd of one hundred million on this side the Atlantic were taught to go this way and that, to wear these clothes and eat that food. … To-day, as we look back upon them, we wonder why our people were so docile, so ready to obey orders.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this under the generality of patriotism; but is it not a solemn fact that for years previous to the war scores of communities in America were going to the school of the pageants, learning these very lessons under the guise of the outdoor festival? The play-acting of those years was, in reality, a training for our people in the art of concerted action. (Art & Life, Vol. 11, No. 3, p. 164)

He’s not talking about the pageant as we understand it now, of course. He means outdoor community theater and any other organized group activity involving costumes and, well, pageantry. He means this:

Miss USA may not take place outside, but it inherited some important aspects of Wright’s pageant—it remains in some fundamental sense a “school,” a place where the nation simultaneously chooses the woman that best represents it and learns what the category of American womanhood now contains.

So how did Wright’s 1919 pageant, an expressly communal activity, become (by 1921, when Miss America started) a rather joyless and inherently competitive beauty contest?

Kimberly A. Hamlin offers one interesting possibility: her article (published in “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant” in 2004)  characterizes the early Miss America contests as both a conservative response to the pageantry of the Suffragettes and a commercial display of scantily clad young women (intended to attract tourists to Atlantic City). Miss America was invented as a means of transforming the communal pageantry of the Suffragettes into a rivalrous “divide-and-conquer” contest in which women were encouraged to compete against each other.

Another (and theoretically compatible) possibility? Eugenics. The major conversation during this time period concerned the startling fact that Americans should understand themselves as human “stock.” Eugenics was transforming the world and helping it become all it could be. Old American heroes were rehabilitated and brought into the brave new world: George Washington was praised not only for his pedigree, which was judged exemplary, but also for “prizing and utilizing superior seeds” and “increasing the best bred livestock he could secure in America and Europe.”

The conversation of what it meant to be American had suddenly become sharply and urgently genetic, and criteria that had previously applied to plants and livestock were rushed onto human beings for the sake of public health and with the hope of helping the nation evolve.

A little history:

In the 1920s, eugenicists adapted public health contests to create “Fitter Family for Future Firesides” contests. Designed by Mary T. Watts and Dr. Florence Sherbon, these contests were deliberately staged at agricultural fairs. These contests encouraged families to re-imagine their histories as pedigrees subject to scientific analysis and control, while appealing to a deeply rooted sense of nostalgia for the rural family as the nation became increasingly urban, as rural children left farms, and as the culture of the Roaring Twenties challenged “traditional values.” As such, the fitter family contests fused nostalgia for the farm family with a modernist promise of scientific control. (Laura Lovett, “Fitter Families for Future Firesides: Florence Sherbon and Popular Eugenics,” The Public Historian, Summer 2007)

Americans, urged to regard themselves not as individuals, but as genetic units, with a larger patriotic mission to improve the race in exactly the ways they’d improved their livestock and their crops, were asked to present themselves for inspection. Here’s how Lovett’s history of the Fitter Family Contests starts:

The 1911 “Million Dollar Parade” of prize livestock and other agricultural products at the Iowa State Fair concluded with an automobile filled with preschool children. A runner on the side of the car proclaimed them to be “Iowa’s Best Crop.” A later report of the event noted that these children had participated in a preschool health examination competition in which the examiners followed the only criterion available to them at the time: the methods of observing used by stock judges for determining prize livestock.
Charles Davenport, head of the Eugenics Record Office, wrote a post card to the Iowa contest-organizers stating that stock judges always took inheritance into account, warning, “You should score 50% for heredity before you begin to examine a baby.”  … The Iowa administrators took note of this caution, but did not change the way they thought of their better baby contests until they observed for themselves how calves were sometimes judged. At Iowa county fairs, a calf would be examined on its own and then carefully compared to each of its parents. To contest organizer Dr. Florence Sherbon, this comparison suggested that perhaps they needed to judge entire families instead of just individual children.

Eugenicists agreed.

On a funny note, fair managers were a little wary of all this: Mr. Eastman, the manager, “did not deem it wise to place human stock first on the [fair] program.” As a compromise, he sandwiched the Fitter Family Contest between the “Pet Stock” and the “Milch Goat” categories.

By the early 1920s, Better Baby Contests had spread across the country, as had the Fitter Family Contest (which has a fascinating history that should interest students of public health). Being judged for your fitness had become something to do at the County Fair. If you won, you were a fit American.

The Miss America contest started at approximately the same time.  Charts of the Miss America contest winners include categories for eye color, hair color, bust-waist-hip measurements, measurements of the calf, upper arm, lower arm, wrist, thigh, and ankle.

Wikipedia tells me that “in 1935, Talent was added to the competition. At the time, non-white women were barred from competing, a restriction that was codified in the pageant’s “Rule number seven,” which stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” No African American women participated until 1970, although African Americans did appear in musical numbers as far back as 1923, when they were cast as slaves. Until at least 1940, contestants were required to complete a biological questionnaire tracing their ancestry.”

A final tidbit from Oct. 10, 1963: “Judges Skip Over Miss America Measurements,” from The Owosso Argus-Press. “Each year the question always arises. How do officials of the Miss America Pageant prevent contestants from padding their bust lines? They don’t try.  “We couldn’t care less,” said Miss Lenora Slaughter, executive director of the pageant. “We’re not in the body business. We’re just looking for a typical American girl who has beauty, poise, charm, talent and intelligence.”

We dismiss Miss America and Miss USA as campy live versions of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue at our peril. This is a persistent phenomenon, and ridiculous as it may seem, it signifies. It shouldn’t be ignored. The reaction to Fakih’s coronation demonstrates this like nothing else could, and it’s worth thinking about how to intervene in the American—in the real sense of the word—conversation about national identity so that conservatives and liberals don’t proceed along parallel, or increasingly divergent, paths. It’s an irony that it took a beauty pageant to show us the full instantiation of the Ugly American. Still, we can all be better than our history.

M

2 Responses to Miss USA: Why Beauty Pageants Matter Again

  1. Pingback: Daniel Pipes: Wrong on the Internet « zunguzungu

  2. Pingback: Unselfish Female Feminists: True or False? « Millicent and Carla Fran

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