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

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.''

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.''

Well, the producers of the shows certainly take them seriously. I chatted with Albert A. Marks Jr., the executive producer of The Miss America Pageant telecast (NBC, Saturday, Sept. 17, 10 p.m.-midnight). The first Miss America contest took place in 1921; Mr. Marks has been in control of this operation (the pageant itself is not for profit) since 1971. According to him, his moneymaking profession is stockbrokering.

''Our pageant is a showcase, a door opener for hundreds of thousands of women who take part in the local and national competitions. We offer $21/2 million annually in scholarships. Maybe it used to be sexist, when the emphasis was on female attributes rather than the attributes which make you a first-class human being. That's what we seek now.

''But how can you have a showcase for people who want to make it in show business unless you allow them to display their talents? Not just appearance - their personality, performing ability, et cetera. Beauty is only one facet. We are not a beauty pageant. If anything, we are a scholarship pageant.''

Mr. Marks says all this seriously, and he is obviously sincere. He says that feminism has had a marked impact on the type of contestant attracted to the pageant. ''Today, the young women know who they are and where they are going and how to get there. They tend to be intelligent enough to match men in any profession. I consider them prime examples of liberated femininity.

''We have been accused of using these women; if anything, they are using us. And I wholeheartedly approve of that.''

What about the charge that losing in the contest may have serious traumatic repercussions on the individuals?

''It's good experience for the women, whether or not they win. Even the losers go back to their home states as heroines - after all, they were chosen in local contests to represent their states. There will be many disappointments in most people's lives - a loss in this contest should cause no more trauma than any other disappointment. You can't shelter people from unhappiness.''

If Mr. Marks had a young daughter, would he want her to enter the Miss America Pageant?

He thought for just a moment and then answered straightforwardly: ''Yes, if she didn't have the means to do what she wanted to do some other way. And if she wanted to express herself in that way, I would encourage her.''

Harold L. Glasser is the executive producer of the Miss Teen USA Pageant. He has also been president and executive producer of the Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageants since 1959.

Mr. Glasser became indignant when accused of anything so crass as running beauty contests. ''We never use measurements except for height and age,'' he told me. ''If women are going to improve their lot in this world, they have to make the most of every opportunity,'' he said, ''and one of the ways that a lady can progress in this world is to be able to stand out in front of the rest of the crowd, so to speak. If she has the finances that are going to help her to exercise choice, fine. But, if you don't have money and are just part of the crowd, maybe a pageant is the place to make people pay attention.''

Would Mr. Glasser want his own teen-age daughter to enter the competition?

No hesitation here. ''Yes, I would certainly want her to enter, having at the same time given her a strong enough belief in her own identity that she would not be narcissistic about it and understand that this is training ground - and that if she wins, it's terrific. But if not, then she will benefit from the experience and the association with other people.''

Does Mr. Glasser believe there will ever come the day that a pageant winner is not attractive by normal standards?

A silence. ''That day has already happened. A person can be attractive without being good-looking. A well-groomed person can be very attractive. Don't forget, our judges consider many aspects of a contestant. They often make a choice which is not popular because they consider things other than mere good looks. It's the great American viewing audience which seems to insist on winners with the most superficial beauty.''

So, we come to the next, more timely, question: Are beauty competitions demeaning to those who watch them?

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