Miss America: Glittering, Glamorous National Symbol?

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On the other hand, national competitions do not exist entirely without value. In America, demonstrations of athletic prowess exist, with the Super Bowl for football and NBA for basketball. These inspire pride, patriotism, and band together groups of people. Competitors are ranked on their athletic ability, mostly assessed through timing, strength, or wins and losses. With the Miss America pageant, another national, widely broadcasted event, it is impossible to actually measure beauty in the same way.

At this point, however, it still may be difficult to comprehend the gravity of this competition – do people really consider the victor an insignia for the country? This question was answered most clearly in the 2014 round of this pageant. For a racially diverse country, such as the United States of America, assigning a face to the national standard for a woman risks alienating specific cultures if the people within them cannot identify with the chosen representative. When Nina Davuluri won the 2014 Miss America pageant, outcries flooded the internet and swarmed through the American public. How could a Miss America be of Indian origin? This outburst proves that this pageant has more traction than a small town beauty competition – the national contest is inextricably linked to some notion of America and what she should represent.

Nina Davuluri, Winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant.  She sparked outrage among national purist who believed that Miss America never could be of foreign origin.

Nina Davuluri, Winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant. She sparked outrage among national purist who believed that Miss America never could be of foreign origin.

Relatedly, social activist, bell hooks describes the feelings of minorities viewing Caucasian females dominating early television screens in “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Describing the character of Miss Pauline, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as an example for the “black female spectator,” bell hooks writes: “To experience pleasure, Miss Pauline sitting in the dark must imagine herself transformed, turned into the white woman portrayed on the screen… ‘But it made coming home hard.’”  In general, the power of sight is so strong, it is disconcerting to fully identify with a person who looks completely different, regardless of any shared culture or background. bell hooks illustrates African-American women adapting to a dominantly “white” cinema culture, lest they lose out on “pleasure.” Minorities are more accustomed to viewing the more largely prevalent ethnic groups; nevertheless, it makes “coming home” or returning to the viewer’s true identity, a painful process. People do not want to adapt themselves to emulate an icon of what they should be, as such reconstructions of identity create conflicts with a person’s actual background. The difficulty of the Miss America competition is that there is no one face that can absorb the multitude of cultures and nationalities present in the United States. The process through which the winner is selected is not through a nationwide vote, intelligence, or based on cultural diversity. The majority of the selection is based upon external looks and poise alone. The prime issue with the external looks factor is that not everyone agrees with a certain set of features to symbolize a Miss America. If this national pageant means to inspire patriotism, similar to large sporting events, it cannot truly achieve its goal if the citizens of a nation cannot universally relate.

Perfunctorily, it is highly improbable that a citizen of the United States would select the Miss America program and exclaim, in all seriousness, “This woman here is the face of America! She represents every belief I have about my homeland!” The United States government does not officially recognize any Miss America winners as emblems; yet, as demonstrated by Nina Davuluri’s triumph and resulting protests, there is a subliminal sentiment that the winner of the Miss America pageant represents the nation, and must do so honorably. A disgraceful action taken by a Miss America or “Miss” of any country would tarnish the reputation of the nation and its values. Subconsciously, there is a particular image citizens want to see as the face of their nation. Susan Sontag, Laura Mulvey, and bell hooks all enter into this conversation, remarking on the personalization of sight and artificiality of visual representations. The non-existence of a universal, or even national, measure of elegance indicates that it is not conducive for a country to label a symbol of beauty, especially when selected by a small panel of judges. The United States’ general goals to offer certain freedoms, democracy, and natural rights to citizens do not intersect with any mention of appearance, let alone a specific type of physical beauty. Therefore, the selection process and national implications of this event are inconsistent. Ultimately, Miss America and the other national pageants across the world are misnomers and would likely not have such controversial effects and great magnitude if they refrained from claiming a female embodiment of a country with a “Miss [name of nation]” format. Glitz and glamor are exciting to observe, but it may be in the best interest of a country to separate these alluring qualities from a national representation.

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