This must have slipped through the many more earth-shattering news reports from around the world, but it could be a very tiny step forward for women that the Miss America pageant announced the dropping of the swimsuit and evening gown competition. Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of Miss America’s board of trustees, is quoted as having said, “We are no longer a pageant. We are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance…It’s going to be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in, when they talk about their social impact initiatives”.
Of course, one might then argue why have a beauty pageant at all? The women’s brains are tested enough in school, college and workplace; besides, what is the likelihood of a woman who does not fit conventional standards of beauty actually winning a beauty contest?
However, it is time to recall a beauty pageant, that fifty years ago, heralded the woman’s liberation movement and floated the derogatory term “bra burning feminist” when the truth is that no bra was ever burnt. It was meant to trivialise the protest and the movement in general.
In September 1968, the Miss America protest was held outside the venue of the beauty contest, by a group of feminists and civil rights activists. The feminist protest, organised by New York Radical Women, included tossing a collection of objects symbolising “instruments of female torture” — pots, pans, detergent, false eyelashes, mops, high-heeled shoes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, girdles, corsets, bras, copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines — into a Freedom Trash Can on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The things might have been set alight, but the protestors did not get permission to do so. A few of the women also sneaked into the venue and unfurled a banner emblazoned with the words “Women’s Liberation”.
The 400 or so women who had travelled from all over America marched with signs that said “No More Beauty Standards” and “Welcome to the Cattle Auction”; passed out pamphlets, including one titled “No More Miss America”, and crowned a live sheep, comparing the beauty pageant to livestock competitions at village fairs.
The pamphlet produced by the protesters saying “No More Miss America” asked women to help “reclaim ourselves for ourselves”. Written by Robin Morgan, a press release listed ten characteristics of the Miss America pageant that she believed degraded women. Most of them are still relevant, substitute Miss America with Miss India or Miss Any Country.
- The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. The Pageant contestants epitomise the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc, and where the best “specimen” gets the blue ribbon. So are women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous “beauty” standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.
- Racism with Roses. Since its inception in 1921, the Pageant has not had one Black finalist, and this has not been for a lack of test-case contestants. There has never been a Puerto Rican, Alaskan, Hawaiian or Mexican-American winner. Nor has there ever been a true Miss America — an American Indian.
- Miss America as Military Death Mascot. The highlight of her reign each year is a cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad — last year she went to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit. She personifies the “unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for”. The Living Bra and the Dead Soldier. We refuse to be used as Mascots for Murder.
- The Consumer Con-Game. Miss America is a walking commercial for the Pageant’s sponsors. Wind her up and she plugs your product on promotion tours and TV-all in an “honest, objective” endorsement. What a shill.
- Competition Rigged and Unrigged. We deplore the encouragement of an American myth that oppresses men as well as women: the win-or-you’re-worthless competitive disease. The “beauty contest” creates only one winner to be “used” and forty-nine losers who are “useless”.
- The Woman as Pop Culture Obsolescent Theme. Spindle, mutilate, and then discard tomorrow. What is so ignored as last year’s Miss America? This only reflects the gospel of our Society, according to Saint Male: Women must be young, juicy, malleable-hence age discrimination and the cult of youth. And we women are brainwashed into believing this ourselves!
- The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination. Miss America and Playboy’s centerfold are sisters over the skin. To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy. Deviation of any sort brings, we are told, disaster: “You won’t get a man!”
- The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity. Miss America represents what women are supposed to be: inoffensive, bland, apolitical. If you are tall, short, over or under what weight The Man prescribes you should be, forget it. Personality, articulateness, intelligence, and commitment-unwise. Conformity is the key to the crown — and, by extension, to success in our society.
- Miss America as Dream Equivalent To-? In this reputedly democratic society, where every little boy supposedly can grow up to be President, what can every little girl hope to grow to be? Miss America. That’s where it’s at. Real power to control our own lives is restricted to men, while women get patronising pseudo-power, an ermine cloak and a bunch of flowers; men are judged by their actions, women by appearance.
- Miss America as Big Sister Watching You. The pageant exercises Thought Control, attempts to sear the Image onto our minds, to further make women oppressed and men oppressors; to enslave us all the more in high-heeled, low-status roles; to inculcate false values in young girls; women as beasts of buying; to seduce us to our selves before our own oppression.
A female reporter Lindsy Van Gelder compared the act of feminist protesters tossing bras in the trash cans to Vietnam War protesters burning their draft cards. The headline of her report was, “Bra Burners and Miss America”. And those who needed an excuse to sneer at the women’s groups, labelled them “bra burning feminists” which turned into a cliché that refuses to go away.
The contest, too, refuses to go away, but, at least, the “cattle fair” aspect of it is somewhat diluted.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.