BOSTON — When the judges crown her tomorrow night, everyone can agree on at least one thing: Miss America and her sash are icons.
To fans (and legions of little girls staggering around in high heels), she's the epitome of beauty, youth, and wholesomeness - one that doesn't look half-bad in a swimsuit. For critics, who'd like to yank her tiara permanently, she's a relic of the objectification of women, one as outdated as debutantes and white gloves.
While the worth of beauty pageants may be in the eye of the beholder, the contest this week ignited a renewed cultural debate over the modern ideal of womanhood. The decision that future contestants could include divorced women or those who have had abortions led some to cheer, others to gasp in disapproval, and still others to yawn.
Watching the pageant "is almost the experience one gets when one opens a time capsule," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "Miss America is in many ways a perfect reflection of a slice of American values as they stood a quarter-century ago."
For some, the contest's dual emphasis on purity and physical beauty is an inherent contradiction. "It sends a very confusing, mixed message to real females," says Suzanne Cherrin, a women's studies professor at the University of Delaware in Newark. While many argue that such messages reinforce traditional values, she says they can have negative effects as well, like eating disorders.
The national pageant's decision sparked a huge protest from many Miss America state organizers and other supporters. They passionately defend the value of the pageant and the importance of maintaining standards that emphasize the ideal of purity for young women. For the past 49 years of the pageant's history, contestants have had to attest that they've never been married and never been pregnant.
Earlier this week, the state pageants voted unanimously against this year's changes. "Either the morals and values will remain a part [of the contest], or we will not," says Libby Taylor, executive director of the Miss Kentucky Pageant and president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants.
"We know absolutely that women are divorced, we know women have abortions. We may or may not approve of those decisions, but you have to understand that this is a contest ... and it is predicated on an ideal," says Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council, a conservative group in Washington.
Many Americans, however, bristle at the notion that a divorced woman is somehow immoral. "I don't think you can use abortion and divorce to divide the moral sheep from the immoral goats," says Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation magazine. And in this era of "don't ask, don't tell," she and others find the questions to be an invasion of privacy. "Can you imagine a contest for men that inquired into their personal sexual lives?"
The new rules, adopted this summer because of concern that the old rules violated New Jersey's antidiscrimination laws, would require contestants to swear that "I am unmarried" and "I am not the natural or adoptive parent of any child."
That would open the runway to women who have been divorced, had abortions, or who gave birth to children who subsequently died. But the Miss America Organization backpedaled Tuesday, after the storm of protest.
The contest's perennially sagging ratings have some questioning if the modern woman has simply outgrown the whole thing. For the past three years, the Miss America pageant has posted record lows - although in today's fragmented television universe, ratings are down all over.
THE pageant "has limped on" because it brings in millions of dollars, says Marshall Fishwick, professor of American Studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "We'd be best off not having the contest.... It's no longer culturally viable."
It's not to say that Americans today put less of a premium on beauty. The quest for physical perfection continues - as shown by the 153 percent increase in cosmetic surgeries since 1992 and the millions paid to supermodels to look stunning in clothes.
"Every time those Gap models come on singing about vests and pants, they do more for setting the agenda for what America should look like than the last 10 years [of pageant broadcasts]," says Mr. Thompson.
In fact, 7 of 10 Americans say physical attractiveness is important in society today "in terms of ... happiness, social life, and the ability to get ahead," according to a new Gallup poll.
But the idea of a beauty pageant where demure young women parade in evening gowns and tiaras may be outmoded in the aggressive 1990s, experts say. "The model of beauty as divorced from sex - as somehow asexual - that's not how people see it anymore. Now you can just turn on TV ... it's a much franker world," says Ms. Pollitt.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society