Sign in or
There She Is: Miss America in the Media
by Rachel Merkhofer, posted 5 Noveber 2007
Beauty pageants have been in the news for years (Martin and Watson 3). While there used to be plenty of positive coverage of pageant contestants (Miss America), there have also been periodic controversies ever since the Miss America pageant began in the 1920s (Martin and Watson 3). Most recently, Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner took a highly publicized trip to rehab. Other key moments in pageant history are the feminist protests surrounding the 1968 Miss America pageant (Douglas 151), and Vanessa Williams being crowned the first black Miss America in 1984 and then losing her crown when nude photos of her appeared in Penthouse (Fein). But ratings for the Miss America pageant have been declining, and in recent years the pageant has struggled to find a network to broadcast it<>. “Perhaps the Miss America Pageant just isn't exciting enough for the tastes of today's viewers,” says Darcy Martin, who teaches women’s studies at East Tennessee State University and was one of the editors of "There She Is, Miss America" The Politics ofSex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant. A look at the history of pageant coverage shows that the newspapers used to devote space to praising winners (Miss America), but now most of the time media coverage focuses on scandal or floundering ratings<>.
The scandal surrounding Miss USA in 2006 comes 80 years after the first articles accusing pageant contestants of bad behavior. According to Martin and Elwood Watson in "There She Is, Miss America" The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant,in the 1920s, "a number of New York newspapers ran inflammatory articles about the supposedly loose morals of the young women who participated in the pageant" (3). That didn’t stop the pageant from becoming extremely popular. When the pageant was first televised in 1954, it brought in an audience of 27 million (Martin and Watson 7). Pageant winners were big news in the 1950s, and newspapers wrote about Miss America every year. Miss America 1958 was featured in a 939 word article in the Los Angeles Times after she won. The article focused on her home life and what happened the night of the pageant (Miss America). In contrast, a New York Times story about Miss America 2006 was only 129 words, and focused on the pageant’s move from Atlantic City to Las Vegas<>.
In 1968, feminists protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. In her book, Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media, Susan Douglas says that the protests were a direct response to the way Miss America winners were portrayed in the media—as the ideal American female. She says, "being treated like a cross between Pussy Galore and Hazel made these young, radical women snap: media stereotypes were strangling their goals and ambitions. So they singled out the dominant media imagery of women for attack" (Douglas 151). But the protest was not enough to overshadow the media adoration of Miss America. In "Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology,” Bonnie Dow says, “not surprisingly, on the day after the pageant, the crowning of the new Miss America was a bigger story for the New York Times than was the protest. The crowning of Miss Illinois as the new Miss America was covered on page 54 of the paper,” while the protest was relegated to page 81 (Dow 132). Judith Ann Ford, the year’s winner, was interviewed in the Los Angeles Times a year later, at the end of her reign. She talked about her future and what she planned to do with her winnings, and was never asked what her opinion was on the pageant in general or the protests surrounding it (Queen Proves).
Although the protests didn’t prompt an overnight shift in pageant news coverage, the feminist critique of the Miss America pageant did lead to changes. Says Dow, “by the mid-1970s, media discourse exhibits an increasing emphasis on the personal agency of beauty contestants, an emphasis that works to refute feminist objections by implying that if women claim that they freely choose to participate in the pageant and refuse to claim that they are being exploited, we should believe them” (129). Newspapers also began asking winners tougher questions. According to Dow, in a 1974 New York Times story, “Miss America was asked for her opinion on the ERA, Watergate, amnesty for draft dodgers, and, of course, the feminist presence at the pageant” (Dow 135). This trend continued through the 1990s, according to Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. She says, "Whether Miss America is speaking with former first lady Barbara Bush on literacy, or advocating AIDS awareness, or calling attention to the nation's problems with domestic abuse, she consistently and forcefully establishes herself as an icon of respectability, someone much more than a mere beauty queen" (Banet-Weiser 43).
In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first Miss America to resign. Until that point, she had been highly admired and was portrayed flatteringly in the media. According to Martin and Watson, "throughout most of her reign, the mainstream media portrayed positive images of the new Miss America. She enjoyed tremendous popularity among all races and was undoubtedly one of the most popular Miss Americas ever, and the media covered William's activities on an almost daily basis" (12). But she was asked to resign when nude photos taken before she became Miss America were published in Penhouse (Fein). According to a 1984 New York Times article, Williams’ replacement, Suzette Charles, “said she would be happy to represent ‘the wholesome American image’ that has been traditional for each Miss America” (Fein).
But that wholesome image would prove difficult to regain. Says Dow, “Generally, by the late 1990s, an ironic tone suffuses media discourse about Miss America. The pageant still receives ritualistic coverage in major media, but the aim of that coverage is to de-romanticize the pageant, to strip off its veneer of wholesomeness and reveal the contradictions underneath” (140). The “veneer of wholesomeness” was certainly taken from Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner, who went into rehab for alcohol abuse. She was allowed to keep her crown after a flurry of public speculation over whether she would be forced to step down<>. The story got major media coverage. A 1562 word March 2007 New York Times article about celebrity rehab centers used Conner as the lead example<>, and the story was covered by celebrity news outlets like E! News <>.
It’s unclear whether this kind of coverage will help or hurt the pageant industry. Although television ratings are currently low<>, the Miss America pageant has been able to adapt in the past. Says Dow, “the Miss America pageant soldiers on, transformed over 30 years from the target of feminist protesters to a symbol of the success of feminism. This media-constructed narrative is partially a product of the pageant organization's own publicity machine, which always sought attention for the regular ‘updating’ of its image” (142). She lists some examples of the changes: “In the last 20 years, the pageant has decreased the importance of the swimsuit score in the overall competition; banned professional hairdressers and makeup artists from the pageant; stopped announcing contestants' breast, waist, and hip measurements; started requiring that contestants choose a social issue for their ‘personal platform’; and even ceased requiring that they wear high heels during the swimsuit segment” (Dow 135).
What does the future hold for the Miss America pageant? Watson says that the pageant has rebounded from its problems in the past, and he thinks it will rebound again. “There are still little girls who want to be Miss America,” he says, even if there aren’t as many as there used to be (Watson). Martin is less sure what the future of pageants will hold. Next year’s Miss America pageant will be on a new channel, TLC, and Martin expects to see it take a new direction. “So, where does Miss America go from here?” she asks. “It will be interesting to see what happens on TLC. The Miss America Pageant has brought in some high powered talent (Anthony Eaton and Bruce Gowers) to orchestrate the show. January 26, 2008 will give us some info on whether or not the Miss America Pageant can turn it around” (Martin).
Banet-Weiser, Sarah. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1994.
Dow, Bonnie J. "Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6.1 (2003): 127-149.
Fein, Esther B. “Miss America Gives Up Her Crown” New York Times 24 July 1984. 3 November 2007 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=951634681&Fmt=3&clientId=9269&RQT=309&VName=PQD>
Martin, Darcy. Email to the author. 30 October 2007.
Martin, Darcy and Elwood Watson, eds. "There She Is, Miss America" The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
“Miss America Starts Reign, Meets Press: Pageant Winner Slept Only Hour, but Appears Fresh” Los Angeles Times 9 September 1957. 3 November 2007 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=437464542&Fmt=10&clientId=9269&RQT=309&VName=HNP>
“Queen Proves She’s Real American Miss” New York Times 1 September 1969. 3 November 2007 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=582876882&Fmt=10&clientId=9269&RQT=309&VName=HNP>
Watson, Elwood. Phone interview with the author. 2 November 2007.
Latest page update: made by RachelMerkhofer
, Nov 5 2007, 11:07 AM EST
(about this update
About This Update
Edited by RachelMerkhofer
- complete history)
Keyword tags: None
More Info: links to this page
There are no threads for this page. Be the first to start a new thread.