Beauty pageants are politically incorrect and have been for a very long time, but when you live in Philadelphia, as I do, and your sister city is Atlantic City, home of the pageant, it’s a local thing. You just gotta watch the Miss America pageant from the "Show Us Your Shoes!" parade, all the way through to the crowning of the new Miss America by the outgoing reigning queen.
I missed the pageant the few years it was in Las Vegas, so when it returned to AC this year, I had to watch again, over the objections of my partner.
I’m glad I did. It was a groundbreaking year with some extraordinary women competing, culminating in the first Indian-American contestant, Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, taking home the crown.
The Miss America pageant differs from other pageants in that it is scholarship-based and predicated on education for women. The winner gets $50,000 in scholarship funds to either pay for ongoing college education (contestants must be between 17 and 24) or for post-graduate education. The Miss America Scholarship program, along with its local and state affiliates, is the largest single provider of scholarship money to young women in the U.S. and in the world. In 2012 the program made available more than $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance.
The Miss America pageant–always focused on the achievements of the contestants rather than just their beauty–seemed to have an extraordinarily diverse group of contestants this year. Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, was the first contestant in the Miss America pageant with an obvious disability. She was born without most of her left arm.
Kelly was outspoken about both her disability and her determination. "The reason I’m here is not because I’m a public interest story," she told the Associated Press in an interview Sept. 9, "I’m here not because I look different, but because I have the intelligence, I have the ability, and all the things that Miss America needs to have. I’m proud to represent those who look differently, but it’s about what you can do and how you celebrate it. I’m just like you."
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, garnered media attention for her decision to not cover up her tattoos, including one down her right side, which is the serenity prayer. Vail is a sergeant in the National Guard and said it was important to her to "break down stereotypes."
Nearly a third of this year’s 53 contestants were non-white–African-American, Latina, and Asia, reflecting the diversity of both the pageant and the country. Crystal Lee, Miss California, a Chinese-American from the Bay Area and a Stanford University graduate, was first runner up to Davuluri.
If the Miss America pageant seems to only be a vestige of 1950s America–back before the pageant was even integrated–the responses to last year’s winner and Sunday night’s winner are indicative of how far we have yet to go with regard to women, race and standards of beauty.
The outgoing Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan, was one of the more controversial Miss Americas with a strong stand for gun control and a platform of fighting child sexual abuse. Hagan looks a lot like what people associate with Miss America: Blonde, blue-eyed, statuesque, and originally from a tiny town in Alabama.
She's actually been a New Yorker for several years, and a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. In fact, she was the first Brooklynite to win the Miss America title. Her reign was filled with controversy, from her impromptu response to the Sandy Hook shooting where she was asked on ABC’s Good Morning America program what she thought about armed guards in schools and she replied, "I don’t think the proper way to fight violence is with violence. I think the proper way is to educate people on guns and the ways we can use them properly. We can lock them up, we can have gun safety classes, we can have a longer waiting period."
There were immediate calls for her to step down, which both she and pageant officials ignored.
Hagan, who was the most-traveled Miss America (it is a full-time job for the year one reigns) at 20,000 miles per month, was also derided for her weight–she gained 15 pounds between her winning weight and the month before the pageant Sept. 15. She was outspoken about this, too, discussing unrealistic body images for women and noting that egg white omelets taste like "air."
A social-media maven, she regularly posted selfies with her sans make-up or in the process of doing her hair and make-up noting that she wanted girls to realize that looking good takes work and that it’s unrealistic to think it doesn’t.
She took on a platform of fighting child sexual abuse, as all the women in her family -- including her mother, grandmother, aunt and cousins -- had been victims. Her work took her to schools throughout the country, talking about the life-long impact child sex abuse has on its victims and ways to protect against it or recover from it.
Nina Davuluri, another Miss New York, will also be traveling the country discussing her own activist platform, which is cultural diversity. She had performed an amazing Bollywood dance routine in the talent portion of the competition.
Davuluri got a running start on discussing her platform the night of the pageant.
Before the winner was announced, as she and Lee stood waiting to discover which would be Miss America, Davuluri said into the microphone: "We’re both so proud. We’re making history right here, standing here as Asian-Americans."
Not everyone was thrilled, however. Like many pageant watchers, I was on Twitter commenting. When the two finalists were standing there, I tweeted out about it and how groundbreaking it was, that both women were Asian.
Others had a different view, however, sending out racists tweets, some of which I received in response to my own pro-diversity comments.
The content was depressingly similar, with many asking why a "real" American couldn’t have been Miss America (Davuluri was born in Syracuse, N.Y.) or why there had to be a hyphenated Miss America or why we had to have an Arab (Davuluri’s extended family is from India, a predominantly Hindu nation) as Miss America.
Proving she’s ready for the job, Davuluri said in her press conference after the pageant, "I have to rise above that," she said. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost, American."
She also said, "I am so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I am thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America."
Davuluri was crowned 30 years after Vanessa Williams was crowned the first African-American Miss America in 1983. Williams was also Miss New York.
Like Hagan, Davuluri has competed previously and her scholarship money helped her fund her college tuition. Davuluri graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science, earning Dean’s List, a Michigan Merit Award, and National Honor Society Award honors. She is applying to medical school, intending to become a cardiologist. Her father is an obstetrician and her sister Meena is currently in medical school.
Like Hagan, Davuluri has had weight issues and said she had weighed 60 pounds more than she does now and had suffered from bulimia in the past.
The controversies surrounding both Hagan and Davuluri raise questions about not just standards of beauty (Davuluri was accused of having made comments about Hagan’s weight, which she denied, but apologized to Hagan for comments made online about Hagan by her followers), but about the role these pageants play in illuminating the very real racism and sexism that many of us deal with daily. Miss Americas are ambassadors of change in many ways, even though from a feminist vantage point they may seem to be maintaining the status quo.
It’s difficult to imagine either Davuluri or Hagan being controversial figures–both seem to be emblematic of a kind of American perfectionism that has long been lauded in this country. And yet Hagan’s political views have courted controversy as Davuluri’s heritage has before the crown was even fully on her head.
The question of whether beauty pageants should even exist may be the obvious target for feminists like myself, but the difference between the Miss America pageant of my childhood and the one I watch now is an attempt to marry beauty with brains, accomplishment with activism, and take it on the road in a package that most Americans who have yet to find feminism can embrace.
Hagan said her year as Miss America, albeit spent wholly in hotel rooms, was invigorating and expanding. Davuluri has been pressed to respond to blatant, ugly racism in a calm yet forthright manner–putting herself out there as a standard-bearer against racism and xenophobia and showing that difference is the predicate upon which America was built.
Issues of sexuality are never raised at the Miss America pageant, but I’d like to see an out lesbian compete–or a former contestant or Miss America come out as a lesbian. I’d like to see frank discussion of sexual difference or same-sex marriage addressed as part of a future contestant’s platform, perhaps because her sister or another relative is a lesbian.
The pageant world may seem to be so 1950s, but it continues to thrive. It would be easy to write a column about why these pageants are detrimental to women and girls. I’ve written that column before and can write it again.
But in the context of this year’s pageant and Miss Americas 2013 and 2014, I’m taking a different stance. I’m not embracing pageantry or supporting it. I’d like to see that world collapse and disappear altogether. But while it continues to be a mainstay of American and world culture, I want to see women like Hagan and Davuluri challenging the status quo on real issues from their platforms. Their role is to show others that women can be beautiful and smart, beautiful and accomplished, beautiful and activist.
Hagan’s journey as the current Miss America has ended, while Davuluri’s is just beginning. But as Davuluri travels her own thousands of miles per month across America, she will be challenging the views held in America’s heartland about what beauty is, about what an American is, about what women are capable of. Like every other American who is not a First Nation’s people, her family came from somewhere else because America is a nation of immigrants–we all came from somewhere else. For the next year Davuluri will remind people of that, if they question who she "really" is.
Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuits and the evening gowns. It’s about the challenges of teaching people who don’t know who women really are, what they are capable of. It’s a daunting task, but Nina Davuluri is an exciting new ambassador for that process. I can’t wait to see her on the road, breaking ground as she goes.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and The Nation, among others. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Follow her on Twitter @VABVOX.