Miss America embraces #MeToo revolution

Bye-bye bikini: Savvy Shields was crowned the winner of Miss America 2017.

Are beauty pageants sexist? Miss America has scrapped its controversial swimsuit round, and contestants will no longer be judged on their looks. But some say the event must be abolished.

The Miss America pageant has changed much in its nearly 100-year history, but one thing has always been the same. At one point in every show all of the contestants were expected to parade in swimwear. Not anymore.

On Tuesday, Miss America chairwoman Gretchen Carlson announced that the segment would be axed. Replacing it is a “live interactive session with the judges”, where each contestant “will highlight her achievements and goals in life”.

A driving force behind this change is the #MeToo movement. Carlson described a “cultural revolution” in which women are “finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues.”

In that spirit, she also claimed organisers will “no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance”, and insisted that future Miss America’s will include women of “all shapes and sizes”.

If so, this would be a massive change. The 2017 judges manual stated that “the American public has an expectation that [Miss America] will be beautiful and physically fit.”

Some were sceptical of the move. In The New York Times, Bari Weiss wrote that “getting rid of the bikini contest won’t stop judges — and the rest of the world — from critiquing contestants’ outer beauty.”

Miss America has long been controversial. Hundreds of campaigners descended on the 1968 pageant, throwing bras, girdles and other “instruments of female torture” into a trash can labelled “freedom” — condemning what they saw as the event’s sexist objectification of women.

Indeed, the first show in 1921 was a straightforward bathing suit beauty competition, devised to boost Atlantic City’s tourist season.

Nonetheless, pageants also have passionate defenders. K. Lee Graham (Miss Teen USA 2014) claims they taught her to “stay true to myself and not compromise”. For Iman Oubou (Miss New York 2015), the experience gave her an “unshakeable confidence”.

Are beauty pageants sexist?

Miss #MeToo

Of course, some argue. If Miss America had women’s best interests at heart, it would end — not tweak its format. As journalist Julie Zeilinger states: “the competition will still judge women — just not by measures of blatant physical objectification.” Forcing women to compete for the approval of strangers is hardly “empowering” — swimwear section or not, they must go.

Not so fast, others respond. It is insulting to ignore the testimonies of contestants who report extraordinary benefits from taking part. What’s more, pageants also spread progressive ideas that benefit society. For example, Miss Universe now allows trans women to take part, and Miss America winners use the platform to campaign for social justice. Pageants should be celebrated, not axed.

You Decide

  1. Can beauty pageants be feminist?
  2. Should they be banned?

Activities

  1. In your own words, write a definition of the term “beauty”. Compare your definition with your classmates’. What similarities and differences do your definitions have? Is “beauty” a difficult word to define? Why/why not?
  2. Read Adelle Amie’s and Rebecca Reid’s opinion pieces by following the links under Become An Expert. Both take very different views on beauty pageants. Who do you agree with more? In no more than 500 words, write your own opinion piece on the subject of beauty pageants.

Some People Say...

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Confucius

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The changes to the Miss America pageant were approved by the organisation’s leadership committee in an unanimous vote, and the changes will take effect at the national finals in Atlantic City this September. The majority of positions on the committee are currently filled by women.
What do we not know?
How the changes will affect the pageant’s audience figures, which have been declining in recent years. The 2017 pageant drew 5.6 million viewers, down from 6.2 million the year before and 7 million in 2015. In 1995, organisers ran a poll asking viewers if the swimsuit section should be scrapped — two in three respondents said no.

Word Watch

100-year history
The first contest was held in 1921 and was presented as a “bathing beauty revue”. Now contestants are also judged on talents and interviews.
Swimwear
To learn more about how the swimsuit contest evolved, read the first New York Times link under Become An Expert. In 1921 women were forbidden from wearing beachwear in public — a ban temporarily lifted for the pageant.
Gretchen Carlson
Crowned Miss America 1989, she then became a TV journalist and author.
#MeToo
A hashtag which gained prominence after accusations of sexual assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein were made public last year. It encourages people to share personal stories of harassment and abuse.
Bari Weiss
Read her full piece by following the link under Become An Expert.
Trash can
Protesters planned to set fire to the trash can, but were not able to secure a fire permit. Still, the phrase “bra-burners” stuck as a disparaging reference to feminist campaigners.
Social justice
For example, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American winner, advocates for gender equality and diversity.

Subjects