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Miss America Pageant a feminist icon? Please


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 1999

The people who put on the Miss America Pageant must be a few rhinestones shy of a full tiara.

They want you to think the pageant, which will be televised on Saturday, is a boon to modern womanhood, a feminist icon, and an equal opportunity benefactor.

Talk about delusional.

The day a woman is crowned who resembles one of this country's most accomplished never-marrieds, our attorney general, Miss Janet Reno, I'll say they have a point. Until then, the pageant is just another location where fabulous-looking women get rewarded for looking that way. (As if there aren't enough rewards.)

Ever since feminists started questioning the pageant's value, the Miss America pageant has been trying to slough off its "bathing beauty" image and market itself as a benefit to women. Organizers say the pageant provides a forum for American women to "express their opinions, talent and intelligence," and that its purpose is to recognize the "diversity, individuality and overall achievement" of women.

Really, they're not fooling anyone.

No matter how they dress it up, or try to sell it, the Miss America Pageant is about one thing: looks. And the only diversity that really matters is whether the contestants are blond, brunet or redheaded.

Organizers deny this and have taken the "Barbie does brain surgery" marketing route. Taking a page from Mattel, they figure if a stethoscope and a lab coat is put on a woman with a 40-inch bust, feminists will buy in.

Yeah, that works. And maybe they would also have us believe the television show Baywatch is a public-service documentary designed to teach viewers the proper way to resuscitate a drowning victim.

Following the marketing plan, event organizers no longer call it a beauty pageant. In promotional releases, the word "beauty" never appears. Instead, they use phrases such as "empowering women" and "providing professional opportunities." They use euphemisms in the judging criteria. Rather than admitting that looks count most, they say the official elements of the judging are: interview, talent, on-stage personality in evening wear, physical fitness in swimsuit and finalists' interviews based on their "personal platform."

"Physical fitness in swimsuit." Please.

Then-Miss Kentucky, Dawn Hicks, naively noted the misnomer back in 1995: "They refer to this stage as "physical fitness' in swimsuit. So why not subject us to a micro-fit test, a body-fat count or perhaps an hour of aerobic activity?"

The answer, of course, is that by "physical fitness" they mean how well your "physique fits" the 36-24-36 ideal. And as far as body fat, the more of it in the right places, the higher your score.

The addition of the "personal platform," in which the contestants express their concern over an important issue, is the biggest goof. The Miss America Organization introduced the "platform" a decade ago and proclaims in its literature that with this addition the pageant's "focus on achievement comes of age."

Instead of being judged solely on whether they're knockouts, contestants now are judged on whether they're knockouts who can contrive concern about world hunger or illiteracy. (I guess it's to see if they can act, too.)

Lately there have been a couple of disabled winners. Nicole Johnson, who is the reigning Miss America, has diabetes. Heather Whitestone, who was Miss America 1995, is deaf. This is supposed to show that physical perfection is not the pageant's focus and anyone can be Miss America.

No one's buying it. The Miss America Organization can trot out as many "disabled" Miss Americas as they want. Yet American women know that some of the most profound disabilities women face, being old, fat or ugly, will never be represented. The pageant may be willing to embrace a few disabled winners but none with handicaps that affect their gorgeous faces or bodies. After all, diversity has its limits.

When criticized as a sexist enterprise, the Miss America Organization retorts by saying it has contributed more than $100-million toward scholarships for women, the most of any organization in the world.

The organization has obviously been very successful in getting women to trade on their good looks for tuition money. That's a healthy American tradition, after all. Plenty of young women have worked their way through college by stripping.

Actually, I have no beef with beauty contests. Beautiful women have always drawn the public's attention, and an event that brings together the best-looking women in the country to compete for a lot of money and fame is a natural moneymaker. But the Miss America Pageant is pretending to be something other than what it is. No matter what the organization says, there is nothing noble or upstanding about giving a numerical score to a woman based upon how her bod stacks up.

Therefore, I suggest the contest change its tune. Rather than keep up this pretense of wholesomeness and good works, it should provide some truth in advertising and open the talent portion up to lap dancing.

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