Though its mission is said to be preparing great women for the world while preparing the world for great women, historically, Miss America’s representation of “great women” hasn’t exactly been robust. Over the past 99 years of the pageant (with the 100th anniversary premiering this year), the competition has ignored its historically exclusive nature behind excuses of changing with the times, carefully crafting their perfect image of a great woman – one that doesn’t necessarily fit your average American. I have a hard time believing the institution that was once seen as so degrading that it inspired a major feminist protest has made a 180° turnaround to its new role of preparing great women. Does a simple claim from 2019 that Miss America is no longer a “pageant” and will not judge women on physical appearance – after 98 years of doing so – really account for progress?
Although the Miss America pageant has recently ended the swimsuit portion and allowed its first transgender candidate, Kataluna Enriquez, to enter, the competition has a history of selectivity that shames contestants and silences their voices. Kimberly Hamlin explained to the Washington Post that the Miss America pageant gained immediate popularity during its first year because it was seen as an opposing force to the suffragette movement in 1919, overshadowing women’s fight for rights in favor of female subordinance. How is it possible that, nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, a competition that originated as an Atlantic City tourist attraction and became popularized as a backlash against the celebrated contributions of women still determines – though, dare I say, undermines – the ideal American woman?
The answer is simple: They don’t advertise that little tidbit in their programs.
The more recent push for empowerment – a reinvention, of sorts, in response to Trump’s election – even made me, a pageant cynic, question whether or not the concept of Miss America had a new meaning. I wondered if the competition had finally become a space where women could have the power to voice their opinions on a large national stage in front of young women who look up to them. After all, if the candidates were feeling more empowered and protected, shouldn’t I feel that way, too? But looking into the Miss America pageant for a freshman contemporary media class dashed my period of boosted faith.
Even with the new, slightly modernized stance of the Miss America Pageant, the everyday women in America are being left out by tight eligibility standards. With just a quick glance at any photo of a Miss America pageant, you’ll likely see a sea of the thin, tanned contestants, with notably few women of color and an obvious lack of different body types and different hair lengths and textures. If you take a look at the eligibility requirements for Miss America candidates, you’ll see just why it seems impossible to see a true representation of all of the women in America: The majority of women in America cannot compete.
Rules in almost every state’s character criteria requirements declare the candidates cannot be older than 25, may not have ever been married at the time of competition (with permission for engagements often being required), cannot have a criminal record, and may not have ever been pregnant. These guidelines also regularly have a note that candidates must be in reasonably good health, which is a not-so-subtle way of saying women must meet the organization’s desired body image. Seeing as these standards exclude many American women, it seems impossible – not to mention offensive – to name just one woman Miss America.
While the title may empower the competitors and winners, it diminishes the rest of the women in the country. It’s pretty demeaning to look at the person declared the ideal American woman, especially year after year, and realize that women with similar body types and experiences – which you can’t match – win over and over.
And yet, the cycle continues. Even with falling viewership, millions continue to watch the pageant’s crown pass on to yet another “perfect” American woman year after year, without ever feeling like they’re being fully represented. And if the Miss America pageant cannot provide an accurate representation of all American women in the entirety of its 100 years, should it continue to exist?