The Miss America pageant (which will no longer be called a “pageant,” but a “contest”) is cancelling its swimsuit portion in favor of a segment in which contestants interact with the judges to showcase their individual talents and passions. This is evidently the result of pressure from Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America and chair of the Board of Trustees, and a longtime advocate of the #MeToo movement.
Carlson explains: “We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit,’ so guess what, you don’t have to do that anymore.”
She continues: “We’re not going to judge you on your appearance because we are interested in what makes you you.”
For starters, I find it highly unlikely that the Miss America pageant will be able to reinvent itself as anything but beauty contest. Apologies to fans, but I suspect I speak for the general public in noticing that this competition has never been about finding the young woman with the most awe-inspiring talent or most innovative political proposals. It’s about finding the most physically attractive woman.
There’s a reason why “world peace!” *giggle* *hair-flip* *eyelash bat* is the answer stereotypically depicted in parodies of the pageant. It’s a thoughtless gimme answer, because we all know what’s really going on behind the token effort at sounding informed and engaged. And we all know that a flock of toned ladies strutting around on stage in bikinis is a core part of Miss America’s draw–as core as the “Boy” aspect is to the Boy Scouts. With that gone, I have little doubt that the contest will either implode or end up under new management who instate a quick policy reversal.
However, as someone who has never had any real interest in this competition, the reaction to Carlson’s decision is what I find truly fascinating. A certain set on the right is responding to this news with invectives against feminism and how it ruins everything. More measured defenders of the swimsuit competition like NBC’s Megyn Kelly insist on a distinction between women who freely choose to appear mostly naked on national television, and those who are sexually coerced. Her co-host counters that many don’t see a real difference.
This defense of the sexually risque has firmly established itself as a part of the secular Right’s social platform, which is consciously crafted to contradict ultra-feminist orthodoxy about body image and the (allegedly) inherent misogyny of glorifying female beauty. Placing beautiful women on a pedestal not only makes many feminists (who, let’s just admit it, are stereotyped as unattractive) insecure, but more fundamentally, it assumes a great and unbridgeable difference between men and women. This is formal heresy for the women of the Third Wave.
It’s tough to imagine a sharper contrast with the traditional conservative attitude toward the sexual license Hefner represented, or to the immodesty and emphasis on the flatness of nude bellies implied in Miss America’s erstwhile swimsuit contest. Indeed, any student of American cultural history can tell you how surprisingly recent the bikini was accepted as public bathing attire.
This traditional emphasis on physical modesty sprang, of course, from Christian values, or at least the cultural memory of those values. But as anyone who has followed the evangelical relationship with President Donald Trump can attest, those values have become more complicated of late.
But in a bizarre role-reversal, something really has changed in our culture. We’ve seen a eucatastrophic backlash against the more boorish aspects of the sexual revolution–against the attitude that women are just as interested in sex as men, are just as likely to engage in it without commitment, and are always open to sexual advances, no matter the context or the source.
This becomes obvious when you watch many movies from just a few years ago. For example, my wife recently rented “Miss Congeniality,” which I had thankfully never seen, and we suffered through it together. Aside from ruining Michael Caine, this eighteen-year-old comedy about FBI agents who must infiltrate the Miss United States pageant to catch a killer is packed with unsolicited touching by its male lead (Benjamin Bratt) of its female lead (Sandra Bullock), who is his coworker. At two points, Bratt smacks Bullock’s…well…you know. At one point, a roomful of male federal employees on-duty use a computer program to animate Bullock’s character in a bikini and proceed to leer at it.
All of this is treated as worthy of an eye-roll but otherwise harmless. “Boys being boys,” so to speak. I watched in disbelief. A director would lose his job over this today. In the real-world in 2018, such behavior would constitute unambiguous sexual harassment. And though the movie does attempt a sort of critique of beauty pageants and their shallowness, its ultimate plot is about an awkward, bookish girl learning to be confident in a bikini.
Something really is changing in our culture. I’m not sure how, exactly. But it is. What’s dismaying is that instead of taking the better part by welcoming the abolition of Miss America’s swimsuit competition and asking whether the whole pageant was ever such a great idea, many on the right are lamenting the loss of what they see as a celebration of women. Gretchen Carlson and I probably don’t share many beliefs, but we’re entirely agreed that young women parading across a stage in glorified loin cloths is not a celebration of women.