Miss America Pageant

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Miss America Pageant

Since its inception in 1921, the Miss America pageant has prompted a fierce debate over gender and the qualities of ideal femininity. What began as a "bathing beauty" contest on the Atlantic City Boardwalk soon became a prime target for social reformers who attacked the pageant for its exploitation of young women. In the 1930s and 1940s, the pageant added a talent contest and began awarding academic scholarships hoping to improve its image by uniting attractiveness with intelligence and strength of character. However, it still drew criticism for its emphasis on physical appearance. In spite of the controversies, though, few critics demanded that the pageant be discontinued, and it has consistently drawn hundreds of thousands of participants and television viewers each year. With all its faults, the Miss America pageant remains a deeply ingrained tradition in American culture, an annual ritual providing an escape into a fantasyland of rhinestone tiaras and glittering dreams.

Although the pageant advertised itself in the 1990s as "the greatest scholarship program for girls in the world," the founders of the pageant held far less lofty ideals. Hoping to keep tourists in town past the Labor Day weekend, Atlantic City businessmen in 1921 decided to hold a beauty contest featuring young women from several East Coast cities. The pageant, drawing thousands of spectators, was a success. Many civic leaders, though, were opposed to it. In the early years of the pageant, contestants were judged solely on their appearance in a bathing suit; a "perfect head" received five points and perfect legs ten. Even more upsetting was the discovery that some contestants were married, which disturbed reformers bent on keeping Miss America a symbol of chastity. Although the pageant declared in 1924 that it would only accept unmarried women between 18 and 24 as contestants, businessmen grew tired of complaints against the pageant and in 1928 discontinued their financial support. City officials eager to revive the pageant hired Lenora Slaughter in 1935 to "clean up" the pageant's image. Slaughter immediately enacted rules prohibiting contestants from talking to men during the week of the contest; she also introduced a required talent competition. At last, it seemed, the pageant had become respectable among the general public.

At the same time, the image of Miss America was gradually changing. In the 1940s and 1950s, Miss America was transformed from a "bathing beauty" into an icon of wholesome young womanhood. During World War II, Miss America sold war bonds and began advertising such domestic products as shampoo, dress patterns, and vitamins for the pageant's corporate sponsors. Moreover, whereas Miss Americas in the 1920s and 1930s typically set their sights on Hollywood careers, winners after 1945 received scholarship money to attend college. Many Miss Americas of the late 1940s and early 1950s used their prominent public position to extol the virtues of "clean living." Barbara Jo Walker, the 1947 winner, spoke out against smoking and drinking and told reporters that she was not interested in Hollywood contracts, but only "the marriage contract." By 1954, the year the pageant made its television debut, Miss America had become a symbol of the perfect American young woman. As the pageant's theme song, inaugurated in 1955, declared, "There she is, Miss America; there she is, your ideal. The dreams of a million girls who are more than pretty may come true in Atlantic City, for she may turn out to be the queen of femininity!"

In the late 1960s, the concept of Miss America as a national ideal—in particular, her endorsement of commercial products and support of the military—did not sit well with many feminists, and in 1968 protesters descended on Atlantic City, carrying signs reading, "Not my ideal," "We shall not be used," and, "Miss America sells it." This was only the first of many controversies over Miss America's image that erupted during the next three decades. In 1984, pageant officials discovered that Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, had appeared nude in Penthouse magazine, sparking a national wave of debate. Williams, pressured by officials, eventually gave up her crown, but the incident lingered in the public mind as an example of the pageant's hypocrisy: the pageant proclaimed itself a guardian of sexual purity, yet it continued to run a swimsuit competition. The heated debate over the swimsuit contest finally culminated in a 1995 "phone-in vote," in which television viewers were urged to call in and vote on whether the contest should be retained. In the end, tradition carried the day, and the swimsuit contest won by a margin of four to one.

Yet for all its traditional trappings, the Miss America Pageant has been a firm advocate of women's higher education and professional achievement: among its alumnae are judges, attorneys, physicians, teachers, and several well-known actresses. The pageant has also stressed the importance of community service. Since 1989, contestants have been required to prepare a "platform" detailing a program of social work that they would enact if chosen Miss America. For many Americans, the paradox of swimsuits and social reform may be too much. But for those who set their sights on the crown, the pageant is serious business. And for the spectators who simply keep an eye on the television, the Miss America Pageant offers a chance to compare one's vision of the "perfect woman" against the most known icon of them all, Miss America.

—Samantha Barbas

Further Reading:

Bivans, Ann-Marie. Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown. New York, Master Media, 1991.

Deford, Frank. There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. New York, Viking, 1971.

Dworkin, Susan. Miss America 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story. New York, Newmarket, 1987.

Riverol, Armando. Live From Atlantic City, Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Press, 1992.