On September 15, 24-year-old Nina Davuluri became the ninth woman of color and the first woman of Indian descent to win the Miss America pageant. Not surprisingly (or surprisingly depending on your level of cynicism), social media went into overdrive with hate filled, paranoid xenophobic comments. Some of the comments were downright disgraceful. Fortunately, the negative commentary was handily outmanned by the level of positive rhetoric and support given to Ms. Davuluri. As for the current Miss America, she handled the controversy with such grace, stating, “I have to rise above all that. I consider myself an American.”
While plenty has already been written or discussed about the racism directed toward our newly crowned Miss America, I instead want to focus on and challenge the sentiment prevalent in some quarters that the pageant is a retrograde entity detrimental to young women.
During its 92 years of existence, the pageant has managed to weather and overcome many crises and criticism, including years of inactivity from 1929 to 1932, another cancellation in 1934, the Great Depression, World War II, charges of racism and sexism from feminist and civil rights groups in the 1960s and 70s (most notably the 1968 protest by 200 feminists on the Atlantic City Boardwalk), a gradual erosion in ratings in the 1970s, the Vanessa Williams /Penthouse magazine scandal in 1984, and abandonment by mainstream network television in 2004, which relegated the contest to obscure media channels like Country Music Television (CMT) and The Learning Channel (TLC). Yet, once again, the pageant has managed to defy its critics who have counted it as all but dead and has reemerged once again on mainstream television (ABC).
While very few people would make the claim that all pageants are positive vehicles for women to showcase their talents and skills, it would be hard to make the case that Miss America is a negative representation for young women. Rather, it is quite a positive example of young womanhood. Unlike many other pageants, including its biggest rival Miss USA, Miss America is a pageant that is holistic in its composition. Contestants participate in an intense interview session, are enrolled in college or are college graduates, and are required to have a personal platform that she advocates for during her year of service and beyond.
Every contestant receives a substantial scholarship for just being a participant. In fact, the Miss America Organization provides more than $50,000,000 in scholarship money for its contestants at the local, state and national levels. Very few other organizations can claim such a level of support. In some cases, contestants (in particular pageant winners) are to network, gain exposure and make professional contacts that even money (in some cases) cannot buy. It is also important to note that, in the Miss America Pageant, contestants are of adult age and are participating in the competition by their own free will. No one is forcing these young women to enter the contest.
We seem to impose a double standard, or should I say a paternalistic standard, on young women. If young men express their desire to participate in competitive or even potentially dangerous sports or other activities, we as a society have no qualms in encouraging them to “go for it.” After all, men should be assertive, aggressive and confident, right? On the contrary, if a young lady decides to compete in a scholarship pageant, there are those naysayers who will do or say everything they can to discourage her, arguing that it could or will be psychologically and emotionally harmful to her self-esteem.
The fact is that many Miss America pageant winners—Lee Meriwether, Phyllis George, Vanessa Williams, Gretchen Carlson and Leanza Cornett—have gone on to be successful in a number of career paths. This is particularly true for women of color—Vanessa Williams, Debbye Turner, Marjorie Vincent, Kimberly Aiken, Angela Perez Baraquia, Erika Harold, Erica Dunlap, and Caressa Cameron. All of these women have been successful in their chosen fields, ranging from consulting to public speaking to media to entertainment. The same can be held for many non-winners. Many young women who have participated in the contest have gone on to become successful as authors, attorneys, public speakers, entrepreneurs and numerous other professions. This is hardly exploitation. While there are many examples where one can point to women being exploited by society, the Miss America Pageant is not one of them.
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