Miss America is old. Very old. She was born in 1920 with an idea called a “fall frolic,” and she’s still hanging on 92 years later. The problem is, as is the norm with most 92 year olds, some aspects of her life are not up to date and she’s grown weary of trying to keep up with the newfangled, modern ways. But it’s not her irrelevance or her desire to keep women mired in the 1920’s that has been the cause of her demise, rather it’s the proliferation of her competitors: shiny reality shows featuring a lot more skin; weekly competitions where people are voted off the island; programs where indistinguishable cuties vie for a man’s attention; the internet… and the list goes on. The life and death of Miss America is not a story about going down in a blaze of glory, but rather it’s a story about fading away with a whimper. It’s a story about a pageant on life support, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of hope for decent ratings while the American public ignores her last, dying breaths.
Miss America started out with the best intentions, and those intentions became even more admirable in 1945, when the idea of offering scholarships was introduced to the pageant. Scholarships allowed the woman who won the coveted crown to pursue her personal goals. The scholarship program grew nearly every year and today, the pageant gives away millions of dollars in scholarship money to over 12,000 women. In 1989, Miss America executives decided to change the format of the competition into a “platform” concept. That meant that the contestants would have to do more than prance around in bathing suits and evening gowns; they would have to pick an issue about which they were concerned, and take steps toward improving that platform after winning the Miss America title.
Winning scholarships and changing the world are both lofty goals, and there’s no doubt that there are many positive aspects to the Miss America pageant, but the show has not been without controversy. In the years of the women’s rights movement, the pageant got a lot of attention from bra-burning feminists who loudly and enthusiastically pointed out the sexist nature of the Miss America competition.
These fiery women marched and chanted, held signs, had sit-ins and crowned a sheep; putting forth the idea that the pageant treated women as no more than animals and calling for an end to the contest altogether. Even this attention, though, only served to bring publicity to the show although ratings began to slip shortly afterward. The men sitting on the executive board of the Miss America organization now probably long for the days when the pageant was relevant enough to invite such heated debate.
In 1983, the pageant made what many consider to be a major misstep when it unseated Miss America title holder Vanessa Williams because she had appeared in nude pictures that were later distributed by Penthouse without her consent. There was nothing illegal in any of the photos and most Americans had to stifle a yawn when they heard about the “scandal.” Williams was forced to turn over her crown to first runner up Suzette Charles. Some say this was the beginning of the end for the Miss America pageant. Williams had been the first black Miss America. Unseating her raised questions of racism as well as further protests from the women’s rights movement. In fact, Hugh Hefner had refused to publish the photos; he felt that doing so would be disrespectful to Williams’ historic win.
In the year of the Willams scandal, America was changing, the women’s movement was still hanging on, and the general public consensus was that Williams had done nothing wrong. America rewarded her handsomely with earnest support for her burgeoning singing and acting career. She went on to become a multiple-award-winning actress and singing superstar. There was a collective sense of schadenfreuden toward the pageant when Williams said that winning the crown in the first place “hurt her brand.”
While the women’s movement and the Vanessa Williams scandal definitely contributed to the public’s eroding interest in the pageant, the most significant factor in the show’s declining ratings is not the idea that the show is sexist; it is the nearly unlimited access we have to information and entertainment today.
Back in the 1920’s and even through to the late 1990’s, the public didn’t have as many distractions, nor were there so many shows that could compete with the Miss America pageant. Certainly in the first fifty years of the show, there were few opportunities to see so much skin on television in a format that was considered “respectable.” The idea of being allowed to ogle beautiful women in skimpy swimsuits in the comfort of one’s own home and under the guise of a legitimate competition show was incredibly appealing. The concept of a competition where people would be voted off and sent home was unparalleled in television. Miss America was the first-and for many years-the only reality television competition show.
This exclusivity of content, combined with the titillating nature of women in bathing suits, was an unbeatable win-win format. At the height of the pageant’s success in the early 1960’s, the public was unknowingly clinging to a soon-to-be-bygone era. The women’s movement was about to begin and the innocence and oppression unique to the 1950s was ending. Ratings started declining in the 1970s and continued an overall downward trend until last year, when the Miss America pageant boasted its “highest ratings in nine years.” However, at eight million viewers last year, the audience was a mere shadow of its former self; in 1965; for example, the show had 22 million households tuning in. An audience of eight million viewers was smaller than the audience that tuned in for the 2004 broadcast after which ABC dropped the show due to low ratings. The pageant has since returned to ABC but the ratings are still dismal.
It would be surprising if this year’s ratings fare any better; the American public is too preoccupied with their regular weekly competition and reality shows to pay attention to Miss America. We simply have too much to watch, too much to do and too much to read to care about an outdated show whether it’s sexist or not.
It’s time for Miss America to admit defeat. 92 years is a long time to have to entertain the public, and the old girl is just plain tired. It’s time for her to say goodbye, close her eyes, and take one last deep breath before expiring. She’ll always be remembered, and she’ll hold a dear place in the annals of history. She’s been in pain for a long, long time and her suffering is palpable. It’s up to us, the American public, to pull the plug once and for all, no matter how difficult it may be. It’s time to let her go.
By: Rebecca Savastio