Victim Blaming at the Miss America Pageant

the miss america swimsuit competition

Criticizing the Miss America pageant feels almost old school. Does anyone even take Miss America seriously anymore? But I tuned into the pageant this weekend, intrigued by how the competition seemed to be shifting ever so slightly away from its white-centric beauty pageant roots and toward a scholarly ethos. Since its formation in 1945, the title of Miss America has been awarded to an overwhelmingly white majority, with eight winners being Black, two Asian American (including last year’s Nina Davuluri), and no ethnically Latin American winners as of present. But the Miss America website states that the event—“rich in history and social significance”—is dedicated to “empowering young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence.” So I gave it a shot. 

As Miss America inches its ways toward professionalism, the standards for judging continue to lag far behind.  While the exact importance of each competition category is tricky because it’s unclear just how the numbers add up, what is clear is that at the preliminary stage of the competition the “lifestyle and fitness” section (better known as swimsuit modeling) is valued at 15 percent while the on-stage question is worth just 5 percent. Apparently, Miss America values tradition as well as the fitness lifestyle.

The night was filled with an instantly infamous cup dance, fun facts like Miss Florida having slapped a shark in her youth, and a Jane Austen misspelling.

miss new york plays a song on a red cup while a typo on the screen says she loves Jane Austin

Whoops.

But what truly hit home for me was recognizing just how closely the Miss America pageant mirrored our society’s victim blaming and rape cultures. 

As I watched the Miss America pageant race closer toward crowning its queen on Sunday night, the competition took a turn from its light-hearted gender-normative ways (Miss Ohio performing ventriloquism while singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”!). During the Q&A section, an incongruous seriousness arose.  The judges gave each of the five final contestants a hard-hitting question that just about any human being would have surely fumbled over, given that the contestants have only 20 seconds to answer.  We heard a vague ISIS agenda from Miss Virginia, thoughts on gun laws and children from Miss Arkansas, and a platform on sexual assault in the military from Miss New York.  But the two moments that stopped me cold were when the judges dropped a question about sexual assault on college campuses and a question about Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. 

Miss Massachusetts was asked her thoughts on addressing the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. After a personal anecdote, she summed up as follows, “We need to talk about this in schools. We need to make this something that’s mandatory for freshmen women and men to attend, and talk about safe drinking because unfortunately it does happen as well.” Miss Massachusetts is undoubtedly a talented, intelligent individual. But the response, in short, implies that to prevent sexual assault, we need to make sure that women (and men) aren’t drinking, since that puts us at risk for being raped. The responsibility lies on women who are threatened by rape to prevent it from happening, not on those who assault them.

Moments later, Miss Florida was asked by judge Kathy Ireland, “We were all rocked by the video of football star, Ray Rice, punching his wife Janay.  She’s standing by him. As a woman, what do you think of her decision?” Miss Florida, Victoria Cowen, replied that she doesn’t agree with Janay Rice’s choice to stick by him after the elevator assault because she doesn’t think Rice deserves a second chance.

The question about assault and the response put some of the blame on the victim: it shouldn’t be on us to question whether or not Rice is right to stay. As numerous survivors of domestic violence have pointed out, it’s extremely complicated why people stay in abusive situations  and it’s often very difficult to leave. There are numerous good questions to ask about the Ray Rice incident—like what the role of the NFL is discouraging domestic violence—but questioning Janay’s choices is not helpful.

While I wholly believe that incorporating questions about sexual assault and abuse was powerful, especially in the context of such a widely viewed event, the language around these issues must be constructed carefully. It can be easy to poke fun at Miss America candidates, but the publicity around their mistakes is also an opportunity to create dialogue.  As we point out the silly talents and “Jane Austin” flub, it’s also worth discussing how conversations that place the blame for sexual assault and domestic violence on women are screwed up.

It sounds corny, but I am personally stoked to see Miss New York Kira Kazantsev serve in her role as Miss America now into 2015.  Kazantsev is the daughter of Russian immigrants whose pageant platform promotes domestic violence awareness. Less than 24 hours after her win, she was quick to let NPR know her thoughts on the framing of the Janay Rice question: “I want people to stop asking, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Every woman is an expert in her own case, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that lead to a woman staying with her abuser.” She brought the issue around to discuss a real culprit, saying “In the United States, the justice system is driving the getaway car for abusers.”

Related Reading: Here’s What We Can Do to Make the NFL Take Domestic Violence Seriously.

Emilly Prado is a former Bitch editorial and new media intern and graduate of Portland State University. When not writing for various publications, she snaps street fashion pics for Willamette Week, partakes in a day job, and uses the internet far too much. Find her on Twitter at @_ahoramismo. Miss America photos courtesy of the pageant. 

by Emilly Prado
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Emilly Prado is a freelance reporter and educator living in Portland, Oregon. Since publishing her first article with Bitch in 2012, Emilly has contributed to over two dozen outlets including Remezcla, Marie Claire, NPR, FeministingOn She Goes, the Oregonian, and the Portland Mercury. When not writing, she makes zines and travels as much as she can. See more of her work at www.emillyprado.com.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

a good answer for 20 seconds of time

i think the answer from Miss Ma was pretty good for a 20 second answer; a class on Safe Drinking would be better than a class on No Drinking.

Maybe, but a class on not

Maybe, but a class on not raping people who've been drinking would be better than a class on "safe drinking" which is so vague as to be nearly meaningless.

Ugh

Oh for gods sake why do SO many feminists (and I AM one) seem to think that talking about doing things that might help lower their chance of being a victim of a crime actually blames the victim? It does NO such thing. Furthermore, changing the entire culture so that these types of rapes don't happen is going to take *at least* a generation or two so *not* helping to protect potential rape victims is at best negligent. And for what? For the sake of a cause. Its a cause I believe in but actual people and their well being is more important. Just stop it.

Are you serious, Tiffany?

Because NOTHING WE DO TO PROTECT OURSELVES ACTUALLY WORKS. I actually got raped BECAUSE I was following the good girl's handbook of "How To Protect Yourself and Not Get Raped." It DOES. NOT. WORK. Thinking that we as women need to do XYZ leads to a false sense of security AND leads us to blame ourselves when we get raped, often creating such a feeling of guilt and blame that we don't even report our rapes, because we think it was all our fault. I didn't report mine, because I spent a lot of time blaming myself and thinking it was all my fault. Mainly because of people like you--people who claim to be feminists but still manage to talk all the time about what I should be doing to not get raped. Then, when it fails (because protecting yourself is always going to fail in a system that like ours, a system that puts the responsibility on women to avoid rape like it's just a fact of life), we think it was our fault and we know we're going to get blamed, so we say nothing.

Doing things to protect ourselves DOES NOT WORK. It ONLY serves to silence us and keep us in the dark after we get raped. The ONLY thing that makes rape happen is the presence of a rapist. That's it.

I co-sign Laura's response.

I co-sign Laura's response.

I also think (hope) that both Massachusetts and Florida could have given better, more nuanced answers had they been given more time to consider what was being asked and develop their question well. The 20-second time limit is just too short.
Though I do agree that questions about Janay Rice's decision are a bad idea.

Miss. Mass. answer did not imply anything

You are right in that giving women a guidebook to not getting raped is seriously wrong on many levels. However, Miss Massachusetts said, "We need to make this something that’s mandatory for freshmen women and men to attend, and talk about safe drinking because unfortunately it does happen as well." She didn't even elaborate what such a class would consist of. Adding anything to this statement is putting words in her mouth, she never stated that such a class would be a guidebook of "How To Protect Yourself an Not Get Raped" directed at women only. It was a tough question requiring a complex answer that cannot be solved in a 20 second response.

Also, your final statement of rape only occurs when a rapist is present is too reductive to have any credibility. I would guess that the mainstream ideal of masculinity and femininity foster an environment where men are pressured into 'alpha male' behavior and women are pressured into being submissive to such advances. It's not just that women are told to be repressed, it's also that men are told to be strong, emotionless, and sex-driven. Until mainstream society starts rescinding these ideals of masculinity and femininity, such encounters and interactions would be less likely to take place. But, perhaps Miss Massachusetts meant that a "Safe Drinking class" would encapsulate all of this or something even better?

Regardless, it is not fair to Miss Massachusetts to imply meaning from an intentionally ambiguous answer. It is not fair to say she implied a victim blaming guidebook, it is not fair to say she implied a cultural studies class that rejected mainstream media. It is also not fair to expect anybody who is not actively studying the rape culture of college campuses to know the most effective methodology or content to prevent rape on college campuses. Perhaps she is only expressing an idea to be open to social change, but needs more than 20 seconds to draft an effective method.

Too reductive to have any

Too reductive to have any credibility? Seriously? So let's bust out some examples of rapes that happen without the presence of rapists.

Your whole post is about not putting words in someone's mouth. If you want to examine why rapists rape I'm right there with you, but the comment was referring to the fact that the survivor is NEVER, EVER, EVER at fault for the rape, but the rapist ALWAYS is.

You can think that that ignores the larger cultural dynamics at play all you want, but it is still true, i.e. credible, that rapes don't happen without rapists.

*

Laura, with the greatest respect, seriously, I'm very sorry you were raped. I'm also sorry you think it's people like me that kept you from reporting it. Its definitely not people like me though, because I absolutely do not think you were at fault in any way. In fact I said explicitly that women trying to protect themselves or anyone advising women to try to protect themselves "does not such thing". There is a huge difference between avoiding a situation and being "at fault". There is in fact no one at fault for a rape than the person who perpetrated the rape. That in my opinion is a given.

My position on this mostly is based on child psychology actually. We talk a lot about things as they are, but the culture took a long time to be what it is and will take a long time to change. There is a reason that girls do better in school than boys, and that is that girls are taught to do what they are told and boys are excused because "boys will be boys". That is the bigger reason, I think, that many women blame themselves and don't report rape. I won't say it was your experience because I don't know you. But girls are taught to be compliant and feel guilty and boys are taught that naughty is ok. That translates to some effed up stuff when we're adults.

People always talk about teaching boys not to rape, no one has a clue what that really means. Its just all talk. As I said I am sorry you were raped and I sincerely hope that you have been able to heal from that experience. It was not your fault, I hope you really realise that now.

"People always talk about

"People always talk about teaching boys not to rape, no one has a clue what that really means. Its just all talk."

Actually it means sex positive education, talking about sex in ways that do not shame desire or the act itself. It means teaching that explicit consent is required before sex happens, that sex cannot happen without it. And it means defining consent and teaching people how to talk about it. It means teaching people what consent is not, ie going on a date, having a few drinks, dressing a certain way, none of these are consent. It means drilling that into everyone's heads over and over so that people remember it in the moment. It also means teaching boys to step up when their friends are crossing lines. It means teaching boys how to confront other boys about rape. It means teaching boys that girls have value other than sex, that they are human beings. It means teaching boys to listen to and believe girls. And finally it means teaching girls all this too, because some girls rape people too.

Lots of people have more than a clue what teaching boys not to rape means. There are writers and educators who talk primarily about that. You not having a clue about it doesn't mean that the information is not out there.

Telling women to try their darnedest to avoid being raped and not telling boys anything at all forces women to be hyper-vigilant and avoid living their lives because of something they are not responsible for, that is not their fault. It is oppressive, it is unfair at the barest minimum, and it does NOTHING to combat the crime of rape.

And why? you ask. Four reasons:

1) as Laura stated, you could "follow the rules" and still be raped, that happens to lots of women.

2) you might squeak through life avoiding being raped, but someone else didn't, because nobody did anything about the rapist, they just told everyone to not be the girl who got raped. Well guess what, someone got stuck with that hot potato, cause y'all were too worried about telling women to not walk home alone to do the more difficult work of telling people not to rape other people.

3) lot's of women know their rapists and don't think they would do that to them. I wonder what the rapist's guy friends/ frat brothers would say/know, but haven't acted on because there is no social pressure to call out rapists?

4) Boys are raped too, feminists should remember it and acknowledge that men are survivors too, even if we convince all the women to do all the "right" things and that somehow worked, men are still raped.

Finally, your attitude does blame women for rape, whether you think it does or not. You can say it is only the rapists fault all you want, but your attitude implies otherwise. Putting literally all the onus on women to "avoid the situation" because you can't figure out how to teach boys not to rape puts the default blame on women when they fail to avoid the situation. Think of it this way: if you essentially say rape is inevitable (I mean, we just don't know what to do with these boys!) then so are rapists, and since they are inevitable they can't be at fault. The next possible person to blame is the person who put themselves in the situation where they would inevitably be raped.

Think a little harder about how to actually combat the crime of rape, and not just how to tell women there's more stuff they can't do cause they are women. And cause they might get raped.

reply on blame

First let me apologize for the 5 exact same posts somehow my phone went haywire and it warmer meant to look emphatic. Not knowing what to do about rapists and how to cure the rapist is exactly where you seem to be as well since you offered no type of answer yourself. It seems we need a class im more than just sex we need a class in proper uses of power and respect because rape isn't just about sex although obvioisly that's a part of it. My intention was not to say owell rape is out there, that boys will be boys or that there is a rule book when dating, it that womem who dress a certain way get raped. Your reading if your accusing me of this which doesn't surprise me because internet communication usually ends up being just like this. "Oh you think your not victim bashing bitch let me tell you who you are" instead of let's communicate. Thank you for your list that was helpful in bringing us together in a harmonious way. That's right pit people against people so that we Can really solve this problem through good ol fashion "no your wrong I'm right" Please spare me on that crap okay ANONYMOUS? I say empower the victim with knowledge that doesn't mean telling the victim not to dress in a mini skirt but i guess for certain people i have to literally state that i don't endorse that type of idea. No it means giving the victim some security by teaching them how to better protect themselves because rape is a reality. I was raped by someone i supposedly loved there was no predicting that except the fact that he was consistently verbally and physically abusive. I learned i should have walked away the first time he hit me. But we live and we learn. I'm not sure that teaching the rapist not to rape is any better of an idea than teaching our victimshow to protect themselves since rape situations vary so distincly (sp). I think it's great to say i don't know how to solve the problem because saying you know and listing why anyone wrong at this point is foolishness and look who your bashing right now. .. a victim who's been through it who had had to think about her experience every day. Your right women aren't the only ones raped. Your right. Your right. Your right did that make your feel better? So let's give those classes on content already.

I'm confused by your comment.

I'm confused by your comment. My response wasn't to you, I never called you or anyone else a bitch, I in no way bashed you personally or in any way referred to your experience, I was responding to a totally different person (Tiffany) who claimed that no one had any clue how to teach boys not to rape, which I disputed. So much for elevating the tone of internet communication. Does your sarcasm do that? Does your complete misreading of my reply which wasn't even to you accomplish that? Does you pointing out that I don't give a single name with no other identifying information either offer valid criticism of what I said, or elevate this dialog?

You say I offer no solutions towards ending rape, I invite you to reread my second paragraph, it is literally a list of possible solutions to help end rape.

You're not the only rape survivor who is commenting on this thread, your experience doesn't mean your ideas are above critique.

Here's why teaching people not to rape is a better plan than teaching people strategies to hopefully cross your fingers not get raped: It places the onus and responsibility squarely on the people/person who rapes, which is where it belongs, and it is totally unambiguous about who is responsible. It does not in any way confuse the issue, rape is acknowledged to be the problem, not binge drinking among college women, not walking home alone at night, not dating the wrong person. And it could actually prevent rapes, because it is a strategy that targets people who can control whether or not rape happens: rapists.

1. I disagree that your

1. I disagree that your comment wasn't directed toward my ideas. It was if you read my comments. It may not have been for me. I don't care. It is a given the only person that can stop rape are rapists. My disagreement is not with THAT it is with sitting too comfortably in this idea of blame. I'll say it again it is a given rape is perpetuated by rapists. Next question please... So how do we prepare women for possible assault while trying to tackle the problem of the rapist? That is a valid question and isn't blame. We HAVE to at least try and protect ourselves.

2. We can assess rape while assessing it's connection with binge drinking, dating, walking home alone at night and long term relationships because rape is unfortunately associated with every one of these things and much more. Don't be dismissive because you don't want a stigma attached to the situation, because you don't want to see how binge drinking can play a part, or because you would like to feel completely safe walking home. Of course we want to and we should be able to feel completely safe but that is not a reality that we are privy to and we HAVE to accept it. Every element is important is giving us an understanding of why the rape happens. Why is rape happening in these situations where we are supposed to be safe (which is all the time)?

3. I apologize for the strong language and did not mean to imply you called me a bitch I was more speaking to your tone, which was condescending.

correction

"It that women who dress a certain way get raped" should read "or that women who dress a certain way get raped..."

and who's came up with since its inevitable is synonymous with n

No fault? Really?

But thats not inevitable, the

But thats not inevitable, the only thing you need is a personal guard and some money... I dont understand why men are becoming even stronger than women lately...

"Y'all were too worried about

"Y'all were too worried about telling women to not walk home alone to do the more difficult work of telling people not to rape other people" -

It is easy to say "Don't rape other people" I think the difficult part you are referring to is finding out what makes a rapist and then undoing that process or starting the process anew .That is a VERY difficult task so I agree that is the more difficult road. I mean what does make a rapist? A million things because they are all different in terms of how they rape and why. It's not impossible but I would say protecting ourselves while we do this (are we doing it?) is probably needed. Teaching women and men that walking home alone makes them more vulnerable and susceptible to assault is okay because it is true and women need to be aware that they are vulnerable in this society. Until we change (if that can even happen) the culture we have to prepare women and men point blank. This doesn't mean that if he or she strives to protect themselves and still gets hurt that it is their fault but dismissing that we NEED and DESERVE to protect ourselves because we are living in this climate is dangerous. Just saying "nothing works" is untrue. Protecting ourselves doesn't ALWAYS work but sometimes it does. So we say to young girls and guys at these frat parties that they should be able to be so messed up on alcohol that they can't make a decision? No we have to press how alcohol works in the rapist and the victim and how to remedy that situation. Of course rape doesn't only happen at frat parties or on dates or walking home alone. We just have to be aware it is possible and take the necessary steps to protect ourselves to the fullest. This is not blame it's common sense.

I didn't say I don't know what it means

When I said that no one knows what it means to tell boys not to rape, that didn't mean I don't know what it means. It meant that I don't believe the discussions I've seen on the subject get close to where the issues really are. You basically outlined the regular old feminist agenda for the past 20 - 30 years. Feminists used to be among the leading philosophical thinkers; now there's just as many conformists as there are in mainstream society.

Over 90% of American parents admit to spanking their children. The researchers say that spanking teaches children to use violence to solve their problems because children learn by example instead of what we tell them to learn. If you think they have a point then you might follow that up to see that maybe spanking also doesn't do much toward teaching children about bodily autonomy. Neither in fact does much of the rest of the way children are raised in the mainstream western world. Children learn from adults that we do what we're told when we have to and we use our power to get what we want from them when we can. Have you ever seen the "Getalong shirt"? Google it, there are many now. People everywhere think it's brilliant. What do you think that is teaching children about body autonomy? I don't think it'll be doing much good.

Next, rape is the only crime where talking about prevention is not allowed:

Don't tell kids to stay away from strangers, tell the kidnappers to stay away from our kids!

Don't tell home owners to keep their homes locked, tell burglars to stay out!

Don't install alarms and guards in banks, just tell the bank robbers to leave them alone!

It just doesn't make sense because criminals do exist whether you tell them that they are committing a crime or not. You suggest that we need to make sure these boys understand consent so that they won't rape. What if they just don't have respect for the autonomy of another human being? All the education in the world won't help then. It starts much earlier than high school if you want to change the culture we all live in. We need to teach children from a very young age that everyone is in charge of their own bodies; that *they* are in charge of *their own* bodies. Then maybe women also will understand they are not at fault when they get raped, because that basic premise was violated and that should never happen.

You see it's not me and my belief that we might be able to prevent a few rapes if we're strategic that convinces women they might be at fault for being raped. That kind of thought comes from our core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us; our upbringing, not some girl on the web.

So don't tell me to think a little bit harder because I don't fit in with the hive mind. I do think a bit harder, maybe you should too.

protecting ourselves

I, like tiffany and laura, do not feel that the person raped holds any kind of blame at all. However, I do believe we as women can acknowledge and protect ourselves to the best of our ability. This means understanding when we could be putting ourselves in danger. Teaching our young women that first dates and frat parties although cutural convention can be some of the most dangerous places for us. It's a fact and instead of ignoring it, we should acknowledge it because these are in fact the places we are supposed to be enjoying ourselves and living life.. It speaks to how women never actually escape their vulnerability. That scares me. Again this in no way is meant to blame the victims at all. It is more of a way to encourage women to adapt to our vulnerability. Being a survivor myself i have analyzed and analyzed and Can only be responsible for me. It doesn't mean I'm always scared just very cautious and i don't apologize for that or try to get around it i embrace it. I would like to say that i don't have to worry and i would like to say i have a right to be safe and that is true EVERYONE has a right to feel safe it just isn't always a reality. People have taken away that right in some respect. How do we change that power structure? I don't know and i think a 20 second answer from a twenty something year old woman is not really going to hack it. Because alcohol plays a part in some rapes. Let's not dismiss that and why are we? Let's pay close attention to all the elements and then we can begin a process more conducive to a remedy. What that is i have no clue. I don't victim bash but it is okay for the victim to go back and ask herself what can i do to protect myself better next time or prepare for something like this? That is okay for her to think about if there is even a way and to think of a plan, it may not work, she may still be in just as much danger but it's a way to feel safe again at least temporarily.

I know when I was in an

I know when I was in an abusive relationship that the three things that made me leave were:

1. My daughter witnessed an incident and I couldn't live with not protecting her.

1. Exhaustion. Mainly from being mentally and physically assaulted constantly.

1. Realizing my responsibility in the situation. I had to accept my fault in the abuse. I stayed and for that I was partially at fault. I came out of blaming him and had to start blaming myself. I know that doesn't help this idea of victim bashing but at some point you have to have a conversation with yourself and say what are you doing to you right now? That doesn't mean I can go to Janay and say your at fault. It is a personal journey and I feel she can and will eventually have to have that conversation with herself. Its complicated and touchy and I wouldn't have wanted anyone telling me I was at fault for any part of my pain. Like I said a personal journey.

Seriously lacking information here

"While the exact importance of each competition category is tricky because it’s unclear just how the numbers add up, what is clear is that at the preliminary stage of the competition the “lifestyle and fitness” section (better known as swimsuit modeling) is valued at 15 percent while the on-stage question is worth just 5 percent. Apparently, Miss America values tradition as well as the fitness lifestyle."

Yes, the onstage question is worth 5% - while the offstage, 10 minute interview is worth 35%, for a total interview score of 40%. The Miss America organization places a much higher emphasis on interview than this article gives credit for. And, as you pointed out, 20 seconds to answer difficult questions (which are very similar to the questions these girls get in their 10 minute interviews) is not a lot of time, which probably explains why it's only worth 5%!!!

Had these ladies had ample time to formulate answers, they may have worded things differently. They don't know the questions they'll get ahead of time, and thinking on your feet to answer such politically charged questions is NOT EASY. I've personally competed in these pageants (at the local and state levels) and now serve as a judge, and having a platform like this is really pushing the conservative boundaries that have been prevalent in past years.

Also please keep in mind that these girls are only between 17 and 24 years old. They're still young, and have a lot to gain in terms of life experience. Let's cut them some slack!

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