The Miss USA pageant has found a new home after being dropped by NBC earlier this week.
The competition will air July 12 on the cable network REELZ, after NBC refused to broadcast the pageant due to inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants made by the pageant's co-owner, presidential candidate Donald Trump. But some are suggesting that Trump wasn't the only reason for NBC's exit from the pageant business. One unnamed source told Fox News that NBC "had been looking for a way out of airing the show for some time" due to low ratings and ad revenue.
The Miss USA pageant, which selects one winner to compete for Miss Universe, was created in 1952 to rival the Miss America pageant after Miss America 1950 refused to pose for publicity pictures in a swimsuit. Today, the two competitions are nearly identical in both structure and viewership: Miss USA 2014 brought in 5.55 million viewers, while 7.6 million tuned into Miss America.
While both were among the most watched television events the nights of their airing, these numbers pale in comparison to viewership 50 years ago: In 1960, a whopping 85 million people tuned in to see Miss America get crowned.
A variety of factors contribute to these numbers, of course – coinciding sports events, the capability to catch up online the next day, and the sheer number of channels available on cable, to name a few – but the decrease is still significant, especially as the 2015 Super Bowl's 114.4 million viewers remind us that live television is not yet dead.
Pageants have long been criticized by feminists claiming they promote objectification, dating back to 1968 when women famously held a demonstration protesting Miss America. Many critics in those days argued that they rewarded women who were “unintelligent, inarticulate, and apolitical,” says Blain Roberts, author of "Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South," in a New York Times opinion piece. This claim is more difficult to make today, she says, as “winners and contestants have attended Ivy League universities, earned professional degrees, and run for Congress.”
“Nevertheless, the feminists’ most incisive critique – that beauty contests exploit women, sexualize their bodies and encourage conformity to 'ludicrous' beauty standards – still resonates today,” she writes. “Although pageant officials and contestants emphasize scholarships, talents and platform issues and repackage the swimsuit competition as the ‘lifestyle and fitness’ category, their rhetoric rings hollow.”
So will beauty pageants continue to have a place in a society growing increasingly sensitive to feminist issues? Laurie Gray and Nancy Redd, Miss Rhode Island and Miss Virginia respectively, seem to think so.
Ms. Gray and Ms. Redd, who competed in the 2003 Miss America pageant shortly after graduating from Harvard University, both identified as feminists and saw the pageant as an opportunity "to speak with political figures, civic leaders and the media to spread the word" about causes they cared about, Gray told a Baltimore Sun reporter.
Redd, who won the swimsuit portion of the pageant, has remained an outspoken proponent of beauty pageants. She says the most rewarding aspect was influencing young girls to follow in her footsteps as a high-achiever.
"Being affiliated with the Miss America brand gave me an incredible opportunity to offer youth a different perspective on life from a persona that they admired and respected," Redd, who majored in women's studies, writes in an article titled "There's Room for Feminists in the Miss America Pageant." "In the same way folks might buy Coca-Cola because it’s an official sponsor of American Idol, I believed that a large contingency of young women might be open to exploring feminism ‘cause Miss Virginia said so."
While some opponents argue that it shouldn't be necessary to strut around in a swimsuit and high heels to make a difference in the world, others are embracing the makeup and evening gowns.
The rise of third-wave feminism, which encourages women to act and dress to whatever degree of femininity they feel comfortable with rather than suppressing their "girly" side, has led some women to view beauty pageants as empowering. Adrienne Vogt of Bustle says pageants celebrate women who are both beautiful and smart, and show young girls that the two traits aren't mutually exclusive.
"It’s less that Miss America is sexist and more that it has a responsibility to bring itself into the modern age," Vogt writes. "Pageants are a powerful medium to reach a huge audience and also champion the success of excellent women in a world where 'being pretty' means you get talked down to or thought of as promiscuous or stupid."