Ms. America

The 92nd Miss America Scholarship Competition took place this past Saturday night in Las Vegas. I've always been a fan of the pageant since I was a little girl. It's so sparkly and the girls are so shiny--it's harmless good fun. Being from the south, pageants are such a big deal, that it is just a part of culture and daily life. Back in 2011, I judged a Miss America preliminary pageant (with much excitement), and I learned about how challenging these pageants are not only for the girls competing, but for everyone involved: the judges, the coaches, the parents, etc.

The Miss America Pageant is the "world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women." Award money is put towards continuing education.  The program focuses on customer service and bringing the public attention of pageant work to helping others. Competing women choose a platform that they bring awareness to and dedicate their service. The pageant focuses on poise, grace and public speaking, and being a strong role model to young girls worldwide.  When I was judging, the difference in confidence and presentation of the girls who were new to the pageant system and those who had been competing for a while were night and day. Ultimately I find "pageant girls" to be really sweet and kind, incredibly driven and capable, and hugely confident. They are more than a little intimidating.

So here we have this public forum for the current crop of little girls to watch and learn and strive to be driven and to help others and to accomplish great things. And here is how the pageant chose to handle them this year:

1) The competition stresses the importance of "healthy living," even stating that the still-in-the-pageant Swimsuit Competition isn't about your attractiveness, but instead about your confidence and good health. In Saturday's broadcast, they presented the eliminated contestants with a tray of donuts saying "these girls haven't had carbs in 6 months, they've earned these donuts!" WHAT? What message are they saying? You are only pretty if you deprive yourself, and when you've reached a goal or end deadline, you have earned a treat? That donuts are no appropriate unless you feel like you deserve it by trying to stay skinny to meet a panel of judges approval? The poor contestants already had to sit on stage the whole program sad and humiliated over having their dreams crushed, and then they were forced to look excited about having a donut. Wouldn't a better message have been to say "everything in moderation" and that treats can be part of a healthy lifestyle? That reward eating isn't really healthy at all? Poor form, Miss America planners.

2) To compete in the pageant, you cannot be married or have had any pregancies. Yet you can have had plastic surgery to enhance your appearance. So the girls must be forced to remain virginal, but can manipulate your body to conform to an unrealistic standard of beauty. And yet, this is not a "beauty pageant."

3) One of the songs the contestants walked to in the Competition was "Whistle" by Flo Rida, a song about giving blow jobs.

 4) The onstage interview question counts for 5% of your score, and is a test to see how quickly you can think on your feet (immediately after finding out that you are in the top 5). Some of the questions posed to the girls on Saturday were about hot political debate topics (gun control/ armed guards in schools, legalization of marijuana, the quickness of medicating children. Other topics were the appropriateness of the Musberger comments about Katherine Webb and also the sensationalism of Toddler and Tiaras and Honey Boo Boo), topics that whole parties are trying to find the right compromise on, and these girls have zero time to think of a response that is appropriate and not polarizing. The questions should be on current events, yes, but they are not politicians, and really, how well crafted of a response can you give in 30 seconds, when really they are trying to stop talking as quickly as possible. I cringed at all the answers given, and then I felt for them--one slip of the tongue from Miss Iowa Mariah Cary will now leave her permanently associated with recreational marijuana use, which in my opinion, isn't a bad thing, but probably what cost her the crown. I'd rather have seen the finalists be asked a question about something personal to them, so we could see their real personalities come out onstage instead of a stilted answer about something incredibly intense and controversial.

5) During the initial announcement of the top 16 women, they aired the women's feelings about being "sexy" and the pageant being sexy. Most answers came across as neutral, as the pageant presents a mixed message: are the girls being judged for the sex appeal, or for their good works and mission? You could tell that the contestants didn't really know how to respond. Again--what's the party line here?

6) There was a rear camera angle for all walks on the runway this year, so everyone could get a nice butt shot.

As much as I wanted to cheer for the girls and cry for the girls and see them succeed, I left this year's viewing with a poor taste in my mouth. It seemed way more offensive than ever to me.  But it wasn't because of the girls--they were great. It was the structure and periferals of the pageant itself.  My ideas of feminism have changed and developed over the years, sure, but I think no matter how you slice it, the pageant was off the mark this year.  The Miss America pageant has the platform and the audience to make a positive statement and make social change, accepting all women and girls of all walks of life, colors shapes and sizes. But that message didn't make it in the programming this year.  The most exciting contestant this year was Miss Montana Alexis Wineman, the first ever Miss America contestant with Autism, who was the "America's Choice" winner and first announced into the top 16. But she was quickly cut after the Swimsuit portion, to I am sure the groans and disappointment of many households worldwide.  For a pageant that supposedly celebrates the individuality of women and what makes us each special and unique, there is a lot of confirmity and fitting a certain standard going on. I want to still love the pageant and the pageant system, but I think they still have a lot of work to do.

So come on, Miss America Pageant. Get your act together and get your story straight. Make a difference to all the girls in society, and not just the ones in your pageant system.