The Miss America Competition, which celebrated its 100th birthday this year, has now outlived key parties and manned missions to the moon, the VHS tape and the subway token, the Soviet Union and nitrate film. It outlives even itself, seeming to hang on more because the infrastructure remains in place than from anyone’s active desire to see it. And as last month’s streaming-only broadcast of the centennial pageant indicates, even inertia can get you only so far. People once watched Miss America on broadcast television, tens of millions of them; it was an institution of enough consequence to be worth protesting, as many did. But who needs a pageant these days? If you want to watch women strain to meet an ideal of femininity no person actually desires, you watch “The Bachelor.”
The reason to compete, on the other hand, hasn’t changed since 1945: It’s money, from scholarships and brand deals, and a platform from which to begin a career or initiative. This was certainly the case for Miss New York, Sydney Park, who, as Ej Dickson reported in Rolling Stone, entered the competition “after seeing an ad on Instagram to earn money” for school. And it was Park’s performance in the talent segment that highlighted, for me, the essential weirdness and bad faith at the heart of Miss America: No matter how much it might like to rebrand itself for the 21st century, it cannot escape the ideas of womanhood it was founded on.
Park performed a poem — her own poem — which begins: “When I was a little girl, I was told to sit like a lady.” But of course (the poem goes on) one can do many things “like a lady”: advocate for justice, or become vice president, and so on. Park performed this poem in a white pantsuit, which, if not a deliberate nod toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, was at least a visual rhyme. Her critique of ladylike behavior was delivered while modeling it at the same time — “back straight, chin up,” just as the poem describes, and shod in Louboutins. There was nothing unladylike to be found here, which was the point, but also the problem.
Miss America is not a beauty pageant, at least not to Miss America. It has insisted this since the late 1940s, when its executive director, Lenora Slaughter, told the New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross that “this is not a leg show and we don’t call the beauties bathing beauties any more. The bathing part went out in 1945, when we started giving big scholarships.” This was at a time when Miss America published every contestant’s physical measurements. (It was also segregated, but Slaughter’s apparent concern was that it might seem shallow, not bigoted.) As of 2018, Miss America claims not to judge participants by their appearances at all — it is only by happy accident that its participants are willowy and symmetrical.