Miss America’s question session—the segment comes late in the competition, which ostensibly means that it plays a significant role in determining who wins the crown—involves its own kind of pageantry. It exists to prove that the women competing for the coveted crown are not merely spray-tanned meat-pieces, but instead thinking, feeling, news-reading, opinion-having citizens. The Q&A segment insists, with a wide, gleaming smile, that the Miss America franchise is precisely what it so desperately claims to be: not a beauty contest, nooooo, but a Scholarship Competition. Sunday night’s questions, though (other topics included Fox News’s financial settlement with Roger Ailes and, given the date of the pageant, 9/11), highlighted the extent to which the segment defeats its own purpose. The questions that are meant to make the pageant relevant serve, in the end, only to highlight how regressive the whole Miss America franchise really is.
Certainly, the Q&A segment is Good TV. The questions, whose content is ostensibly a surprise to contestants, are the aspect of the pageant that, short of a wardrobe malfunction or trip on the stage, can go most easily awry for the women involved. (Remember Miss South Carolina, in Miss Teen USA, and her U.S. Americans”?) And they do lend an air of the non-ridiculous to the otherwise sequin-happy, Vaseline-shiny proceedings. They’re the one element of the pageant that serves as a reminder that it is indeed taking place in 2016.
The problem, though, is the pageantry. Even the event’s superficial nod to “substance” has a lurking kind of nihilism. There’s the fact, on the one hand, that the competition allots 45 seconds for contestants’ bikini-struts, but only 20 for the Q&A section—a discrepancy made more glaring by the fact that the swimsuit competition involves 15 contestants, while the Q&A involves only seven.
But there’s also the fact that the questions are nearly impossible to answer in any way that reveals a woman’s knowledge or her nuanced understanding of current events. (Could you, on live TV, come up with a satisfying, 20-second answer to the question, “This is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. What is one thing the new president should do to protect us?”) They demand, via their 20-second time limit, soundbites; and yet the bites must be pleasingly bland. Ideal answers will seem passionate but reveal themselves, upon closer inspection, to be nonpartisan (Miss America, after all, is meant to reign over all Americans); they will suggest familiarity with the issue at hand but not get lost in the issue’s pesky details. The answers, in the end, will be the real-life answer to Miss Congeniality’s running joke: All the contestants really want, they must find a way to make clear in their assessments of immigration policy and sexual harassment suits and the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, is world peace.