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.
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.”
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.