Beauty Over Brains? Contradictions in the Miss America Pageant

The eager pageant women representing their home states with pride all took the stage last week in Atlantic City with the hopes of becoming crowned the 2018 Miss America. The pageant gives women the chance to win scholarship money by participating in four events: Lifestyle and Fitness, Eveningwear, Talent, and Interviews. Every contestant wins a scholarship of some sort, yet the amounts vary depending on how far the contestant gets in the competition. The grand prize is a $50,000 scholarship.

In the first event, Lifestyle and Fitness, the judges rank women as they strut down an aisle sporting a brightly-colored bathing suit and a spray tan. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how these women’s bodies could be equated to a cash prize. Being the very first event that contestants are weeded out from, this subconsciously tells young girls that their body is what primarily holds value, rather than their intellect. The competition ensures that people who match a certain beauty ideal are eligible for the prize, and those that aren’t are instantly removed from the selection.

Contrarily, the interview portion of the pageant dismantles the previous objectification of women from the swimsuit portion by focusing on the women’s intellect. Contestants are challenged to answer complex questions facing our nation in 20 seconds or less. The topics include concussions in football, climate change, neo-Nazi’s and white supremacists, and confederate statues. Miss Texas was asked if she agreed with President Trump’s remarks in Charlottesville. She emphatically answered, “I think that the white supremacist issue, it was very obvious that it was a terrorist attack. And I think that President Donald Trump should have made a statement earlier addressing the fact that and in making sure that all Americans feel safe in this country, that is the number one issue right now.” Miss Texas confidently expressed her view with a smile and showed to the young girls watching that participating in political discourse can be empowering. Similarly, Miss North Dakota, who would later be crowned the winner of the pageant, was asked about President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. She answered the following: “I do believe it’s a bad decision… there is evidence that climate change is existing so whether you believe it or not, we need to be at that table and I think it’s just a bad decision on behalf of the United States.” When young women on national television assertively express their political stance, they show young children that their intellect can be a powerful force. In this way, the Miss America pageant encourages females to be politically active, and in turn assures them of the immense value their voice can hold.

Paradoxically, the Miss America pageant both perpetuates heteronormative white beauty ideals and the objectification of the female body, and empowers women to use their voices for political discourse. This juxtaposition is in many ways a reflection of the apparent ideological polarization in our country today. Many of us are entrenched in traditional gendered norms and aggravated with liberal sensitivity, while many of us are seeking to empower the marginalized. In this sense, the Miss America pageant truly reflects where our country stands today, bounded by our history while simultaneously resisting.