Reinventing Miss America

So, I’m curious: can anyone name the current titleholder of Miss America …without using Google? Yeah, I couldn’t either nor could any of my friends and coworkers I surveyed over lunch. But if you keep up with the latest goss then you’re familiar with Miss South Carolina Teen USA (thanks, YouTube), know that Tara Conner almost lost her 2006 Miss USA crown to partying, and have read recent headlines posing a possible twist in the Miss Puerto Rico pepper spray incident. It would seem nowadays being a damsel in distress is a surefire way to make an impression on the public conscience, but what of being a contestant on the once highly-rated Miss America pageant?

I used to be a fan. Up until the age of 8 or 9, watching the Miss America pageant on television generated almost as much excitement as the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz or The Jerry Lewis Telethon. I thought those girls were soooooo beautiful with their big hair, sparkly gowns and perfect smiles. I loved being on the edge of my seat cheering for my favorite states to win the crown. But it wasn’t long before I lost interest, and apparently I’m not the only one. Due to a significant drop in ratings, ABC stopped airing the pageant in 2004. It was briefly picked up by Country Music Television (CMT), and now its latest home is on The Learning Channel (TLC) where it makes its debut this January.

It may seem like an unlikely topic for a Damsels in Success forum, but I have my husband to thank for my current musings on the pageant system. He’s currently an editor for Miss America: Reality Check—a four-week hour-long special leading up to the pageant that promises to give Miss America a facelift “you have to see to believe”–and it got me wondering how other damsels feel about this nearly century old beauty contest.

A quote from the Miss America website reads: “Miss America represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate.” At one time it seems this was true, but do women today really look to Miss America as a representation of the best in beauty, talent, and intelligence? If my very unscientific lunchtime survey is at all indicative, it would appear they don’t.

I’m pretty sure we can all probably name a handful of beautiful women deserving of a more modern version of the Miss America title: working moms with a talent for juggling family and job responsibilities, academics teaching the next generation of intellectuals, entrepreneurs taking great risks for great ideas, and creative mavens making their mark on our cultural landscape. Unfortunately those damsels don’t often get the media attention or recognition generated by her sisters in sequins and sashes—but they should! Maybe some of the women jockeying for the Miss America crown do represent these ideals, but we wouldn’t know it from the stereotypical pageant smiles and answers we see on television. I think if the contest allowed the viewers to get to know the character and motivations and accomplishments and dreams behind these women instead of just showing us an assembly line of perfectly poised and rehearsed mannequins, we might care a little more about the competition. If Miss America is meant to represent our highest ideals then it needs to get off the stage and into the real world to find the most beautiful, talented, and intelligent women our country has to offer. And if some of you damsels decide to go for the crown, let me know because I will totally tune in.

Jaye Fenderson is not competing for Miss America, but she is making a documentary film called First Generation.

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