Ask Miss America contestants about Syria
The Miss America pageant’s defenders argue it 'empowers' women rather than demeans them. It’s time we put that claim to the test by asking them to speak their minds on controversial issues like Syria, especially as some contestants parlay their pageant experience into politics.
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But the pageant would come under attack again in the 1960s, this time from feminists. Protesters burned bras, girdles, and pornographic magazines at the 1968 competition, where they also bestowed the title of Miss America on a sheep. Demonstrations would continue into the mid-1970s, when a New York Times headline captured the essence of the clash: “Miss America Faces Ms.”Skip to next paragraph
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In response, the pageant tried yet again to leaven its glitz with more substance. Starting in 1990, every contestant has chosen her own “platform” issue. But most of these matters are relatively non-controversial ones, like eating disorders or bullying; they don’t require you to frame a tough position or defend it against naysayers.
That makes things way too easy for the contestants, who are starting to parlay their Miss America experience into, yes, electoral politics. Miss America 2002, Republican Erika Harold of Illinois, is now making her second bid for a seat in Congress. State pageant winners have also run for office in Indiana, Vermont, and Hawaii. And don’t forget the Miss Alaska runner-up who ended up on the presidential ticket in 2008: Sarah Palin.
Do these examples show that the pageant gives women a leg up, instead of simply showcasing their long legs? Perhaps. Or maybe our modern political campaigns have become beauty pageants in their own right, melding vapid sound-bites and tweets with really good makeup and hair.
If the Miss America pageant wanted to prepare women for real political participation and leadership, it would make them field hard questions – about Syria, immigration, debt, and everything else. Instead, contestants are typically treated to softballs like “What is a good citizen?” and “What does America mean to you?”
There are exceptions, of course. At the last Miss America competition in Vegas, shortly after the Newtown tragedy, one woman was asked whether schools should have armed guards and whether this would make them safer.
“I don’t think the proper way to fight violence is with violence. I think the proper way is to educate people on guns and the ways we can use them properly,” replied New York’s Mallory Hagan. “We can lock them [guns] up, we can have gun safety classes, we can have a longer waiting period.”
The comment raised hackles among gun-rights advocates. But it also helped win the Miss America crown for Ms. Hagan, whose pointed response separated her from the rest of the pack. If we wish to find out which women are intellectually qualified for this honor, we need to honor their intellects. Or, we can just go back to talking about how awesome they look in bathing suits.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).