A tradition trapped in a time warp
Last Saturday night, I fell through a time warp. I was with family members at Mick Daniels' Saloon on Snyder Avenue in South Philly. Most of Mick's many TVs were tuned to football playoff games. One was devoted to the Miss America Pageant. Sitting at a table in an Irish pub that probably hasn't been remodeled in 40 years, and lacking a mirror to remind me of my gray hair and beard, I might have been 20 again for how little the Pageant has changed in my lifetime.
The Pageant, I have read, was invented by the Businessmen's League of Atlantic City way back in 1920, when it was called the "Fall Frolic." In 1921, one hundred thousand people turned up on and around the Boardwalk to see the 16-year-old winner accept her $100 prize.
When I was a college student in 1968, 400 feminists, styling themselves the New York Radical Women, assaulted the same Boardwalk in protest, crowning a sheep as their counter-culture Miss America.
In 2006 the Pageant relocated to Las Vegas.
What swept me back to my youth last Saturday was, as I say, how little the Pageant seems to have changed down the decades. Take for example the talent segment. In the space of half an hour I saw three tap dancers and a baton twirler. I kid you not… young women apparently still abide in the American heartland, whose special skill is simultaneously keeping three batons rotating around their evenly tanned bodies.
Speaking of evenly tanned, one titillating change from the male perspective is that the swimsuits are now two-piece. I'm not sure when the switchover from the more modest one-piece "bathing costume" occurred, but I liked what I saw more of.
In a noisy bar dominated by a DJ, I couldn't hear the Q&A part of the event. I'm going to have to stick my neck out here and bet that the contestants are all still praying for world peace and chomping at the bit to help starving, leprous children. But I could be wrong. Perhaps they all said that their common dream is to marry wealthy investment bankers and own six homes.
After seeing how little seems to have changed since '68, I figured that this event still must drive feminists nuts. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions. A year ago a blogger who writes under the moniker of "Tenured Radical" posted, "The End of Miss America: Feminism Didn't Kill the Pageant, But Boredom Might." Tenured Radical went on to opine that, "what struck me more than anything was how anachronistic and desperate the pageant seemed: what women's liberation couldn't kill, time and a fast-changing culture has. We can start with the fact that Miss America was a) broadcast on Saturday night, a teevee wasteland where unwatched shows gasp their final breaths; and b) scheduled opposite an NFL playoff game which would be sure to kill even a great show."
Tenured Radical is right. The Miss America Pageant, like the human appendix, is a vestigial artifact. But you can bet there are big bucks to be made by somebody, or this dinosaur would by now be extinct.
As a self-proclaimed feminist myself, I have to admit that the Miss America Pageant doesn't offend me at all. In a world where television is the most discussed topic around the water cooler, the pageant appears to have become so irrelevant it's not even worth mocking anymore, let alone taking seriously. It's a spectacle that was lampooned over 10 years ago in "Miss Congeniality," and all the jokes in that movie still apply. The only difference is that now no one cares.
Think about it: you can see more skin on an episode of "Dancing With the Stars" than you can see on Miss America. No longer is this the only show where made-up, tanned women with lithe bodies, implants, and over-fluffed hair parade around for no purpose other than to be judged. We now have "The Jersey Shore," "The Bachelor," and "The Real Housewives," wherein you can see all manner of plasticized skin squeezed into bathing suits. We also have the Lingerie Football League and beach volleyball if you're more of a sporty person. Miss America looks positively prim next to those ladies.
There's also the issue of intelligence, and how - excuse me, but - many of the contestants on beauty pageants seem to lack it. More Miss South Carolina is never going to live down her most famous comment, which went something like, "I think many U.S. Americans don't have maps… such as… and education in the other countries like South Africa and the Iraq… and we need to help those countries and our countries… in order to build up our future. Such as." But again, beauty pageants are hardly the most egregious or significant offenders when it comes to showcasing stupidity. Americans do it on television for free every day.
There has been one interesting ripple in the pageant world of late, however. The Miss Universe Organization recently changed its rules for qualification in the competition, finally allowing transgender individuals to enter. Kylan Arianna Wentzel of Century City, California, will be the first transgender woman to ever compete in the Miss California USA Pageant. Now, I'm not saying I plan on actually watching the competition, but I hope that those few who still do watch - and are sadly stuck in some 1950s time warp that I hope they can escape from soon - will learn something new about the conventions of beauty. For once, maybe a pageant will be able to do at least that much.