Why We Can’t Afford to Ignore Miss America

I’ve never truly bought into the “feminists should hate beauty pageants” mentality.  I’ve truly never seen a justification that I’m ready to fully accept.  Most of what I hear is that they objectify women, focus on women’s bodies, and basically just set women back 50 years.  I mention this largely because I’m about to defend Miss America, and I want to make it clear that I’m not only defending the most recent winner of the title, but what the institution of Miss America actually means.

First, I think Miss America asks more of women than that they simply look good in swimsuits and evening gowns.  I think that Miss America, and other pageants, challenge women to project confidence in public, which many women struggle with.  I think pageants have moved towards the demonstration of talent and social awareness.  The platforms that Miss America contestants put forth are incredibly important to this: they highlight particular issues our society is dealing with, and bring to light the importance of bringing women into these issues.  Yes, they DO look at women’s bodies, but they also look at other qualities including poise, charisma, compassion (or at least the ability to project compassion), etc.  These pageants provide access points for women to discuss social problems they care about, help facilitate higher education opportunities, and provide role models for young women looking at ways to access social justice activism and looking for models of confidence.  Moreover, I think shunning these institutions effectively shuns female sexuality and conventional femininity in a way that feminism should avoid.

[Note: I’m not supporting child pageants and the premature hypersexualization of female children.  I think that’s incredibly problematic.  I think adult women can meaningfully consent into pageants and their implications in a way that doesn’t need to be condemned.  That is my point]

That said, let’s talk about what just happened with Miss America. Miss America just crowned its first ever Indian-American winner, which is a marker that is worthy of discussion and celebration.  In addition, one of the runners up-~-Miss Kansas-~-made history by being the first contestant to openly display her tattoos during the pageant.  These are two issues I think feminists should be discussion, so I’ll start with Miss Kansas and move on to Miss America, because I think it’s time that we talk about what it means to be American and to be an American woman, and how these two exceptional young women helped to challenge preconceived notions about pageant participants in a way I think is incredibly valuable.

THERESA VAIL is described as being a blonde bombshell from Kansas-~-but she’s not the sweetheart next door we’re used to people talking about when we talk about Miss America contestants, especially contestants from the mid-west.  She’s a senior at Kansas State University double majoring in Chinese and Chemistry, aiming to become an army dentist.  At 17, she joined the Kansas Army National Guard, and she’s an expert shooter.  Those things are impressive all on their own, but they’re not the reason she made headlines.  Most contestants who have tattoos have covered them up during the competition: she didn’t.  Vail says that her platform is about being yourself, no matter how different you are-~-and it’s something she clearly adheres to.

What’s powerful about Vail is this: she’s not afraid to be herself even when she’s seen as deviating from what’s acceptable for her gender.  She presents an example of femininity that is strong, bold, and unafraid-~-and even if it took a pageant to put that on display for the country, I think it’s something that is incredibly valuable for young women to see.  When women like Theresa Vail get up and say “I’m a woman, and I’m tough, and those things are deeply intertwined”, it can be hugely empowering to girls who see them as role models, who are trying to figure out what it means to be a woman today.

But let’s take a look at Miss America herself: Nina Davuluri was the first Indian Miss New York, and is now the first Indian Miss America.  No sooner had she been crowned than racist comments started to flow forth.  Folks on Twitter who sometimes make me sad for humanity put forth gems like these:

@Granvil: And the Arab wins Miss America. #Classic.

@JAryes15: I swear I’m not racist but this is America

@anthonytkr: #MissAmerica ummmm wtf? Have we forgotten 9/11?

@Shan_WOWW: Miss America or Miss Al-Queda right now?

Personally, I’m sometimes ashamed that I live here.

So let’s talk about a couple of really obvious things.  One: Indians are not Arab.  Indians are not all Muslim (Nina Davuluri, for example, is not a Muslim).  Not all Muslims are terrorists, that’s a ridiculous and racist comment to make.  Indians had nothing to do with 9/11. Those are all very obvious, but I feel better for making sure they were said.

But the one I really want to talk about is the second one: “I swear I’m not racist but this is America.”  Yes, it is.  America is a massive, multi-cultural country that includes a large number of ethnic groups, religious sects, political organizations, etc.  It is a nation of immigrants, and a nation built on the backs of exploited minorities, and it’s time that we recognize that when we say “this is America”.  America has a HUGE number of women of color.  It’s shameful that when one of them comes to national prominence through an institution such as Miss America, there’s outcry.  It’s just another example of the whitewashing of American women, an attempt to make it seem like women of color aren’t there or aren’t important.  And if you don’t think that’s an issue feminism should care about, think again: women of color are disadvantaged more so than white women across a huge range of issues, from hiring to fair pay to interactions with the justice system.

On top of that, it’s hugely important for women of color to be able to see prominent women of color like Nina Davuluri, to see that they can be considered beautiful in a country that emphasizes white aspects of attractiveness; to see that they can be successful where white women traditionally have been; to see that they can speak up for their communities and actually be hard.  Davuluri’s platform was based on “celebrating diversity through cultural competency”, which is something that America needs to do a lot more of.  On top of that, she has a degree in cognitive science and plans to go to medical school; during her tenure as Miss America, her goal is to talk about and promote the inclusion of women in STEM fields.  If women are discouraged from pursuing those fields, many women of color are further discouraged, leading to huge disparities in the workplace.

My point is this: we should be celebrating the fact that Miss America offers us a platform to examine these issues.  To look at and to challenge preconceptions about gender and race.  To celebrate successful women.  To highlight women who challenge the status quo.  Who cares if we’re doing it with a tiara: the fact of the matter is, we need to be helping women shine.

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~ by Randi Saunders on September 16, 2013.

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