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Apparently pageants are still a thing.
In the words of one of my favorite sportswriters, Frank DeFord, “maligned by one segment of America, adored by another, misunderstood by about all of it, Miss America still flows like the Mississippi, drifts amber waves of grain, sounds like the crack of a bat on a baseball, tastes like Mom’s apple pie, and smells like dollar bills.”
The historic Miss America pageant has reinvented itself regularly to remain acceptable and relevant to both contestants and consumers. According to religious scholar Mandy McMichael, while the contestants might see the pageant as a way to formulate their own identities, the actual Miss America pageant is all about sex. But so is everything else in American culture, including sports, beer, music, movies, television, and politics since sex pervades every area of American life. “At their core, Americans want to be desired and desirable. Indeed, it is hard to find anything in American culture that is not about sex or using sex. And yet the lie of sex is that it is never enough. It is empty and shallow and meaningless when it is merely paraded about for consumption in the public sphere.” McMichael goes on to explain that Miss American needed to appear chaste and virginal, even if a ruse. “Miss America was asked to walk a tightrope between acceptable and unacceptable forms of display for ‘respectable’ women.” She could never be naked, but had to be beautiful. But if the Miss America Pageant was only about sex, McMichael reasons, it would have passed away with age. The Miss America pageant, then, is also about entertainment. Miss America used sex to entertain but also combined all the key elements of live theater, game shows, reality tv, drama, and comedy to entertain the viewers. But Miss America is also about competition that required skills, training, and strategy. Looking good was not sufficient. Contestants hired coaches, trained, learned proper ‘form’ and competed against each other. And yet McMichael argues that while the holy trinity of sex, entertainment and competition are a powerful force, religion is the trump card. “Religion capitalizes on all that is American in Miss America. It sanctifies the sex, ritualizes the entertainment, and justifies the competition. Religion makes Miss America.”
While McMichael makes a compelling argument, I’m still ruminating about the power of pageants in today’s American culture. Recently, Tariro Mzezewa wrote an article “What Does it Mean to be Crowned Miss Juneteenth,” and comments that the Juneteenth pageant looks familiar, in that there are sashes, crowns, talents displayed, questions asked, and a scholarship granted to a historically black college or university. But Mzezwea also argues that the Juneteenth pageant holds a deeper meaning for the women, their families, and their communities as a celebration of Black women, community and sisterhood. Kennede Wallace, 2019 Juneteenth pageant winner, is quoted as saying “it’s a reminder that I’m proudly Black and I’m happy about it and I’m strong. A reminder that Black is beautiful. To be ourselves with the hate or without the hate that we experience. A reminder that we’re free. We’re here with a purpose.”
McMichael makes the case that pageants showcase identity formation of the contestants and Mzezewa seems to showcase that the Juneteenth pageant is all about identity formation, and, in this case, the identity and experiences of Black American women. The Juneteenth pageants reveal the significance of pageants reinventing themselves to stay relevant in American culture, but also that sex, entertainment, and competition with a dash of religion still seem to capture America’s attention.
Are pageants a useful way to view the identity formation of women in American culture?
Frank DeFord, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, (New York: Viking Press, 1971).
Mandy McMichael, Miss America’s God: Faith and Identity in America’s Oldest Pageant, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019).