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Beauty pageants: the debate -- and high ratings -- go on

By Arthur Unger / September 16, 1983

Are televised beauty competitions objectionable to women? Certainly television programming executives, who try very hard not to run counter to current public attitudes, do not believe - or care - that the shows are demeaning, as they schedule more and more of what are now called ''pageants.'' Everybody involved has learned to be careful never to say the word ''beauty'' or ''contest.''

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For a while, in 1968, beauty contests became the symbol of male chauvinism in the United States. In fact, the 1968 demonstrations against the Miss America contest in Atlantic City are regarded by some as the beginning of the mass feminist movement.

But now, 15 years later, the feminist movement seems to be turning its attention to more important issues, such as national legislation that affects women, while the beauty contests have become unabashed successes in the TV ratings, proliferating with each TV season and attracting little feminist ire.

On Aug. 30, CBS aired ''The Miss Teen USA Pageant,'' which attracted huge numbers of viewers of all ages. On Sept. 17, NBC will air the mother of them all , ''The Miss America Pageant,'' which is usually the highest-rated show of the summer and early fall. Still to come in the fall are ''The Miss U.S.A. Pageant, '' and ''The Miss Universe Pageant.'' Then, in April, ''The Miss American Teen-ager Pageant.'' Demographic experts indicate that the audience for these shows is by no means limited to men. Unlike TV sports, regarded as male sanctuaries, research has shown that women constitute a major portion of the beauty-pageant audience.

I recently talked to the producers of the major pageants, as well as to some of our leading feminists, and came to the conclusion that while the promotor-producers try to convince themselves of the positive educational aspects of their contests (pardon me, pageants), most feminists refuse to take either the promoters or their competitions seriously. Even Gloria Steinem, usually easily accessible for comments on any feminist issue, declined to take time out from an 18-city promotional tour for her new book to comment on anything as trivial as a beauty pageant.

Susan Brownmiller, author of a new Simon & Schuster book that deals with beauty, ''American Feminine,'' told me: ''Sure, they are denigrating, no matter how the promoters protest. They create unfair standards for women. And unfortunately, in our society it is almost more important to be a Miss America winner than to get a Pulitzer Prize.''

Ms. Brownmiller pointed out that the famous 1968 demonstration in Atlantic City did not involve bra burning. ''That's a myth. It was the time of draft-card burning, and some smart headline writer decided to call it a 'bra burning' because it sounded insulting to the then-new women's movement. We only threw a bra symbolically in a trash can.

''However, the statement made then still holds true: 'Women in our society are forced daily to fight for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards that we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously and accept.' It's those same old standards now, no matter how they try to disguise them.

''But there are so many more-important matters to turn our attention to now. I must admit those contests hold a morbid attraction for me, and I generally watch them all. . . .''

Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies' Home Journal, told me:

''It's just part of the entertainment business. The women who participate can benefit in many ways - money for education, entree into modeling and entertainment careers. Most of the contestants are fairly attractive women who are making the most of their attractiveness, not really great natural beauties.

''I don't even mind the bathing-suit competition. Concern about one's body and fitness is greater today than ever before; the idea of having a good body is so much more possible for women of every age that some of the sexual connotation has disappeared. We are really just looking at women in terrific shape. And you must remember that at one time bathing suits were shocking because we rarely saw people with so little clothes on. Today it doesn't matter much.

''Those beauty contests are as American as apple pie and the Rockettes. It's silly for anybody to take them seriously as a symbol of anything other than good old American enterprise.''