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One nation. Around 160 million women. Can one national pageant determine a single face for all these females – a symbol for the entire country? The annual Miss America contest boasts twinkling lights, sweeping ball gowns, and bold bikinis gracing the length of its stage. According to Entertainment Weekly viewership statistics, between 5 and 8 million people flip through television channels, finally settling on the competition. What ensues is admiring elegant dresses, gazing at beautiful women, and even chatting over some of the more comedic talents displayed. Subconsciously, though, even with simple literacy and no knowledge about the pageant, glancing at something called “Miss America,” suggests a figure somehow embodying the United States. However, it is difficult to associate fashion-forward women demonstrating their grace as icons of a country. Furthermore, it is impossible for one person to encompass the elusive ideals of the United States; yet, it is interesting to study the foundations of this pageant, titled after a country, and determine if they are worthy of conveying the values of a nation.
Often, humans create images and emblems – with the national flags, team mascots, and even presidents or monarchs as figureheads for the government. Is there a natural need for a national icon of beauty as well? This question has become even more pertinent with the Miss America 2014 event. Nina Davuluri, an Indian American, was selected as the winner. With her darker skin, black hair, and South Asian features, many did not consider her the traditional connotation of the “American woman,” which resulted in a great uproar. A pageant, in essence is an external appraisal. What then, is the purpose of these national pageants, and why call the event Miss America?
On their official website, the Miss America Organization claims to provide “personal and professional opportunities for young women to promote their voices in culture, politics, and the community.” Nowadays, the winner of the pageant spends a year following her victory fulfilling honorable community service in her line of interest. However, the origins of the corporation convey a very different message. The competition began in 1921 as part of an elaborate public festival staged by Atlantic City businessmen to extend the summer tourist season. The event, deemed a “bather’s revue,” was designed to bring business to the boardwalk – generating revenue off of men who wanted to rank women, in bathing costumes, against each other based on physical appearance. Now, the event is segmented into: lifestyle and fitness in a swimsuit (20% of the total score); evening wear (20%); talent competition (30%); and a 20-second onstage question about a major world issue. This formerly small boardwalk sight is now broadcasted on televisions across the country, which means that the women must present themselves in a way suitable for filming.
The Miss America pageant can be compared to the cinema, as both carry airs of artificiality and falsity, with editing (of both bodies and electronic images). Laura Mulvey, feminist film theorist, comments on the image of women in film in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed.” Unlike Mulvey’s ideas of misogyny that females on television serve to fill male phantasy, these contestants most likely walk the stage due to confidence in themselves. Both females and males judge the women on stage. Therefore, this analysis is not a feminist appraisal of the event, but an evaluation of its credibility as a national motif. However, Mulvey points out that these women are “exhibitions” to be “displayed” and “styled accordingly” emphasizing the pleasure the viewers receive from the event, as the ladies are meant to be looked at. Each judge then may take his or her subjective “styling” and rate poise or etiquette in this manner. Due to the personalized nature of image perception, this national icon is then chosen solely with the eyes of a select group of biased celebrities.
Does the Miss America contest consider itself a beauty pageant? Frankly, no – it refrains from using this terminology in official documents, referring to the competition as a “system” or solely a “pageant.” Nonetheless, despite what the corporation officially states, this is definitely a competition of physical assets, simply put – what pleases the eyes. Accepting the claim that it is not coherent or truly possible to establish a national standard of beauty, the validity of Miss America as a country’s symbol is distorted when this beauty may not be completely natural. In her article, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” controversial editorial writer Susan Sontag asserts that photographs and recordings are a natural segment of the world today: “To live is to be photographed…. But to live is also to pose…. There is the deep satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee.” There is a certain pleasure found in posing for the cameras, connoting a “put-on” attitude that represents superficiality, barely revealing information deeper than the exterior. She comments, “life isn’t edited”; however, with pageants such as these, utilizing heavy applications of makeup and airbrushing, it is important to question the extent to which the competition is artificial. Rather than filming raw, natural images of these women, they are layered with makeup to hide any deformities that may lessen the beauty of the representative image of the women of America. If there is a sense of “fake-ness” how is the event supposed to give an accurate representation of America? Mulvey adds to this argument, “…the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation.” The lights and visual effects glamorize the event, slightly altering the appearances of those on stage, and giving the whole competition an angelic glow – close to perfection.
Mulvey also discusses the prevalence of the “silent image of woman still tied to their place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Although the Miss America winner is chosen by a private group of adjudicators, the more important judgment occurs by the audience at large, scrutinizing the image they see as the symbol of their country. The Miss America pageant is definitely not void of vocal components abstaining from creating an entirely “silent image”- the women must interview and answer questions about pressing current events to succeed. The answers given in the allotted 20-seconds, however, tend to be vague and rehearsed; furthermore, the impressionable audiences do not even view the interviews. In addition, the majority of the pageant includes the women quietly exhibiting their poise, mostly refraining from speaking. Therefore, following Mulvey’s logic, the majority of the event involves the Miss America contestants as “bearers of meaning,” with “meaning” construed subjectively by audience members and judges. Can this meaning they bear, of traditional elegance and perfect fitness, represent an entire nation’s opinion? It does not seem just to ask all the women of a country to portray such a meaning.