Miss America, outstanding or outdated?

On January 15, a new Miss America was crowned. Formerly Miss Wisconsin, winner Laura Kaeppeler has joined a long line of all-American beauties.   For one brief year, she will travel the country, advocating for the children of incarcerated parents. Despite the education and tact that such a duty requires, her primary role in the eyes of many will merely be to smile and look pretty.

Since 1921, numerous Miss America winners have dazzled the country with their pulchritude and talent. They looked stunning in evening wear. They looked ravishing in bathing suits. They looked elegant while entertaining audiences with their various accomplishments. On the whole, they have been delightful. Truly quaint. However, it seems that the modern woman should be judged on criteria that is slightly more substantive than the cut of a dress or the shapeliness of her body.

The Miss America Pageant itself seems hyper-aware that some of its traditions look antiquated to modern viewers, and it has a right to be defensive. Becoming Miss America is nothing to sneeze at. It currently provides the largest scholarship award in the world for young women.

Hosts and contestants alike made sure to remind viewers that Miss America competitors are accomplished women, almost always boasting college graduates and a slew of students in professional schools. And while they occasionally stumble, it is no easy feat to answer a random question on current events in thirty seconds. That being said,  there are several bones one could pick about the annual contest.

The Miss America contestants may be among the country’s best and brightest, but many of them catered to a more 1950s version of the American woman, domesticated as opposed to liberated. Such simperingly sweet statements like the contestant who promised that she “could make any sinful dish heavenly” were reminiscent of that bygone era.  There was also the semifinalist, who decided that, out of all the songs she could sing and outfits she could wear, she would sing a song about Disney World and don a disturbingly cutsie little yellow dress. It almost seemed infantilizing.

Then, there is the issue of physical appearance. The competition now shies away from describing itself solely as a beauty pageant, but it was not by a mere coincidence that all of the competitors looked like life-size variations of a Barbie doll. They were for the most part tall but not too tall. They were thin but still quite buxom. There were many a blonde but only a handful of minorities. It seems that Miss America should be able to prove that beauty means something more than looking good in a teeny tiny bikini.

As far as nostalgia goes, Miss America still has it. For the hour or so when she is disseminated to media screens around America, she still captures the imagination. It should be remembered that in these days of recession and political discord, Miss America is wholesome, uncomplex entertainment. It should also be remembered that many Miss Americas have served as trailblazers, as was the case of Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, or Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America.

My feelings about this venerable American tradition are so mixed that my mother attempted to box me into a decisive position. If someone ever asked me to run as Miss America, she asked, would I do it? My answer? I’d have to think about it.


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Miss America, outstanding or outdated?