What might a pageant, shed of the myth, actually look like? When Gretchen Carlson announces that Miss America 2.0 will help young women “learn leadership skills and pay for college and be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul” … what, realistically, will that mean? Will Miss America become a speech contest? Will it become a talent show? An essay competition? A spelling bee? A platform for young women to share their visions for a better world—ted, but with better clothes?
Probably not. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any of that actually happening in the context of a pageant, even if “beauty” has been carefully excised from its marketing messages. There’s an old Parks and Recreation episode that finds Leslie and Tom judging the Miss Pawnee pageant; Leslie guns for Susan, a great student and an expert piano player and a volunteer at a children’s hospital. Susan loses, though, to Trish—who is not manifestly intelligent, who is not manifestly talented, but who compensates for it all by being, everyone agrees, “the hot one.” It’s a joke that, like Shatner’s song, doubles as an insight. American culture, after all, has gotten extremely adept at the performance of progress. It has gotten very good, in this case, at talking about—talking up—inclusivity and body positivity and empowerment. It has gotten very good at ignoring the invisible hands that guide our aesthetic marketplaces as well as the other kinds.
But words are easy; change is hard. It is one thing to claim that “we are not going to judge you on your outward appearance”; it is quite another to make good on that promise. Miss America may be best known as a single event; in reality, of course, it is also a deeply connected network of different events—city competitions, state competitions—that lead up to the most (in)famous one. It is a cultural infrastructure unto itself. And it has been built up within a world in which beauty standards for women—standards that are deeply connected to race and class and the persistent inequalities that lurk among our easy pageantries—are so omnipresent as to be utterly unremarkable. Punishingly narrow assumptions about feminine beauty: They are part of the American scenery. They varnish the stage. They make it dangerously slick.
So I will be watching, with great interest, September’s Miss America 2.0. And maybe I’ll be, in some ways, commending it. It’s trying, after all. It’s adjusting. It’s acknowledging that progress is sometimes best made with small steps, especially when you’re walking in heels. But the updated event will also be necessarily limited in its vision, because there are two worlds at play in the promises of Miss America 2.0: the world that might exist—one that is truly representative, one in which women’s “accomplishments and talents” really are celebrated above all—and the world that actually does. A world in which, for so many women, beauty is, rather than empowering and inclusive and self-expressive, precisely the opposite. A world that, like beauty pageants themselves, has a way of clinging to outdated traditions simply because they are traditional. “The Miss America pageant will end its swimsuit competition,” The Times’ breaking-news alert went. “‘We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance.’” If only those two things really were that connected. If only it really were that easy.