Here She Comes, Miss (Elected) America
More beauty queens than ever before are running for office. Is the pageant getting smarter or our political culture getting dumber?
But then times changed. Just a few years after the Church’s decree, Miss America started facing criticism from the left, particularly from feminists who labeled the event prudish and out of step with the women’s lib movement. Women were now burning their bras, not modeling them.
Throughout the 1970s the Miss America pageant steadily lost its cultural relevancy, reflected in declining television ratings. It stopped being one of the most watched TV events of the year, and by the late 1980s the picture was bleak. Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman penned a book, Hype and Glory, detailing his experience as a judge at the 1989 Miss America pageant, writing: “Lately it’s been drifting. Lots of reasons: feminism, a proliferation of clone contests, a sense that there was something nineteenth-century about the endeavor. ... It was still the dream of thousands of young women all across the country (but mainly in small towns).” And who won the title that year? Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson.
The success of Carlson’s network can in part explain why Miss America contestants are now chasing careers in politics. Carlson and her other 24-hour cable news cohorts from across the political spectrum have turned politics into entertainment and politicians into TV personalities. Candidates and pols are expected to “always be on,” sound bites win the day, and female politicians in particular must look the part—qualities Miss America contestants actually strive to develop while still in their 20s. The life of a political candidate or politician is a never-ending judged performance, and beauty queens are uniquely prepared for the scrutiny.
And the pageant keeps grooming them. In its pursuit of gravitas, Miss America added a new component to its competition in 1990: the “platform” issue. Each contestant, starting at the preliminary local pageant, has a platform that she addresses throughout her year if she wins at the state or national level. Scholarship money is awarded to the best platforms. This year three contestants won $12,000 in scholarship money at the Miss America pageant on the strength of their platforms; the swimsuit winners were awarded only a combined $3,000. The current Miss America’s platform is supporting and mentoring children with incarcerated parents, and last year’s winner, Teresa Scanlan, focused on combating eating disorders in young girls. Erika Harold, whose platform issues included bullying and abstinence, tells me that she enjoyed interacting with legislators and testifying before Congress on these issues. Her experience seeing the legislative process provided additional motivation to pursue a political career.
(Remember, not all the gals are conservative. Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett’s platform was AIDS prevention, an especially bold choice in the early 1990s, and one that appealed to an important group of pageant loyalists: gay men. The pageant world, with its warring camps of fans—small-town evangelicals and big-city gay men—is a pretty good microcosm of our current political system, in fact. That the first two states to legalize same-sex marriage—Hawaii and Vermont—boast recent state queens who are currently running for state political office is, if not representative, at least noteworthy.)
Harold remembers watching Miss America and political conventions on television as a child. The pomp and circumstance of both appealed (constituents waving signs, wearing buttons, and cheering wildly for their state rep), so Harold isn’t surprised that politics and pageantry have converged more generally in American society. “Reporters ask [celebrities] their opinions about political events a lot more. Decades ago you could be a public figure without being forced to engage on other issues. Now in order to be relevant you have to be able to give your opinions,” she said.
Is this the future of Miss America? Will contestants soon start wearing their political affiliations like a badge, trying to win the support of a certain constituency? We wouldn’t be surprised. After all, although she is supposed to represent all, like the reigning Miss America explained, in the end the queen only represents herself. Sound familiar?
Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a sociologist currently writing a book about beauty pageants and American culture.