Responsibility - and Miss America

The questions about whether former Miss America Vanessa Williams did or did not actually consent to have sexually explicit photos of herself published in a national magazine may be more fully resolved in the days or weeks to come. What does seem clear, however, is that no one involved in this unhappy situation can really say he or she was fulfilling deeper responsibilities - to themselves, or to society.

Miss Williams is young, intelligent, and personable. It is hoped she might turn what must be a difficult experience into an opportunity for deeper growth. Responsibility, after all, comes in many forms: There is the responsibility to one's family, friends, and work. There is also a responsibility to oneself - a responsibility not to be exploited or to exploit others.

Over the years, beauty contests have been one of the routes by which talented and ambitious women have sought to advance. Are such pageants an anachronism at a time when the world increasingly recognizes that attractiveness is to be found in inner qualities of joy and grace, competence and intelligence, and when women are more and more taking their rightful place in commerce and government?

What about the commercial and media hype that now surrounds beauty pageants in general? ''The first few months were really hard, handling being a celebrity, a role model, what was expected of me, the controversy, the media.'' Miss Williams said that in regard to her title last April, long before the current incident.

And what about magazines that pander to the crudest type of exploitation, regardless of consequences to others, or society at large? What redeeming purpose are they showing?

The unfortunate Miss America incident, it would seem, provides a message about private alertness and public responsibility.

The new Miss America, Suzette Charles, a black American like Miss Williams, completes what is a year of breakthrough for minorities in the long-running pageant. We wish her well.

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