It wasn’t until about halfway through the competition that I realized how different things really were this time around. I can pinpoint the moment precisely because it was the one when a young woman, clad in a deep-blue evening gown with a high, jewel-necked collar and saucily cut-out sides, started to talk about garbage. Callie Walker, Miss Alabama, had been taking her turn on the Miss America stage’s “red carpet”—the new event the producers of the revamped telecast added to replace the show’s erstwhile swimsuit competition. Walker came to the end of the short carpet; she gave a practiced pivot; she strode to Ross Mathews, a co-host of the evening’s show. Mathews proceeded to ask her the same question he’d ask each of the 10 finalists who had made it to that portion in the competition: “What message do you have tonight?”
Miss Alabama did not miss a beat. “It’s estimated by 2050 that our oceans will be filled with just as much plastic as marine life,” she informed the host. She grinned. “We have got to do something.” She smiled even more brightly, selling it. “Let’s talk trash.”
Welcome to “Miss America 2.0,” the ostensibly less controversial version of the controversial pageant slash “scholarship competition” that aired, for the first time in its new incarnation, on Sunday evening. The two-hour-long telecast, true to its revamp, featured a lot (no, but really: a loooooot) of talk about grit and dreams and feminine perseverance. It featured exactly one (1) ballet dance set to “Hoedown,” two (2) separate performances of Liszt, and approximately 79 pairs of platform heels, 215 roses, 1,248 references to “empowerment,” 5,679 references to “strength,” and 700,698,432 sequins. (There were, by my count, exactly zero (0) references to feminism.) The whole thing was, in all its aggressively sparkly juxtapositions of the forward gaze and the regressive one, a tidy metaphor for progress itself: The show suggested all the strangeness that can result when the world you want is awkwardly grafted onto the world you have. It was, in all, supremely weird and often compelling and occasionally inspiring. I cried at the end.