The contestants onstage may be all dazzling smiles and glowing confidence, but the Miss America Pageant itself is facing sad, uncertain times. Once among America’s most-watched television shows, in recent years it has been strutting bravely down a catwalk to obsolescence. The 2015 competition last weekend lost the TV ratings race to Sunday Night Football and, with under 7 million viewers, was down 25% from last year. What will it take to revive the nearly century-old pageant? Or is it time to simply pull the plug?
Derided unfairly, like all beauty pageants, as a sexist anachronism featuring a gaggle of gorgeous but dim bulbs, Miss America was actually founded as a scholarship program in 1921, and today is the world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women. The contestants are no intellectual slouches; this year’s winner Miss New York, Kira Kazantsev, is a dean’s list honors student at Hofstra whose scholastic ambition is to obtain a law degree and a Master’s in Business Administration for a career in international diplomacy.
But pageants have been easy targets over the decades for feminists, who argue convincingly that, no matter how impressive the contestants’ other qualities are, parading sculpted bodies in swimsuits and evening gowns before a panel of judges tends to objectify women. On the other hand, television is a visual medium where inner qualities don’t do much for ratings, so eliminating the “style” part of the organization’s “Style, Service, Scholarship and Success” motto probably isn’t in the cards.
This year’s pageant in particular was difficult to take seriously for other reasons as well. Miss Kazantsev’s talent was singing Pharell’s “Happy” while sitting cross-legged on the stage and drumming with a plastic cup, which won her the crown but drew some social media scorn. Also during the broadcast, Miss Nebraska unwittingly flashed her underwear to the camera, prompting a lot of tittering on Twitter. At another point, novelist Jane Austen’s name was misspelled onscreen.
But the real threat to Miss America is not feminist scorn or comic flubs but tepid ratings. In 2004, the pageant was dropped by ABC after scoring (at the time) record low ratings — 9.8 million viewers. It thereafter went to cable until it made a bit of a comeback on ABC in 2013 with the best numbers since its last ABC appearance — 10 million, or virtually the same as the ratings that got it dropped in the first place. It doesn’t help that the viewing demographic skews middle-aged. “The Miss America pageant is not the attraction that it used to be,” laments Sen. Ray Lesniak of New Jersey, where the organization is based. “It certainly has lost its significance and its value.”
The pageant may have lost its significance and value, but what about Miss America herself? What purpose does she serve? The organization points out that Miss America is a role model and spokeswoman, traveling approximately 20,000 miles a month – a different city every two days – touring the nation to educate millions of Americans on issues that are near and dear to each winner’s heart (Miss Kazantsev’s platform is ending domestic violence, certainly a timely and timeless issue). Get past the overblown glamour and glitz of the pageant telecast, and it becomes clear that Miss America does make an impact through her year-long, nonstop charitable and community efforts.
What can save the pageant itself? Perhaps nothing will ever elevate it again to its former glory, but it would be sad to see an American tradition like Miss America go entirely the way of the dinosaurs – not just for tradition’s sake but because Miss America does good work raising awareness and serving as an inspirational American symbol of the “Service, Scholarship and Success” parts of the motto. Perhaps its critics should look at the larger picture before tearing that institution down.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 9/22/14)