You may not have watched last night’s Miss America pageant, but you’ve certainly heard that there was quite a negative response to Miss New York Nina Davuluri’s crowning. Davuluri, who by all accounts is American considering she was born in Syracuse, has caused controversy because she is Indian American. Journalists took to Twitter last night and this morning to gather all of the random moments of racism published publicly in response to Davuluri, in what is probably the only thing that we’ll actually take away from the antiquated pageant: an opportunity to highlight the national conversation of American ideals, the major one, apparently, being intolerance.
I had originally planned on writing a piece today about the Miss America pageant and why it’s still a thing. After all, there’s not much that the Miss America title-holder does once she receives her crown. Sure, there are a few public appearances throughout the year, some goodwill and philanthropic work, but overall it seems like a silly symbol for womanhood that is sadly upheld in our contemporary society in which we’ve come to understand that women probably have more to offer than their looks and ability to answer one random topical question about either Miley Cyrus or Syria, as last night’s contestants were asked to do. (Their ability to prove they know what’s going on in the world at large counts far less than their ability to walk in a bathing suit and high heels, naturally.)
While the pageant’s supporters often point out that it is a “scholarship program” — the top honor comes with $50,000 — the job of Miss America mostly involves travel, pretty dresses, and a lot of makeup. It’s a symbol for the American ideals, but those ideals are typically limiting. There’s the notion, I suppose, that being Miss America opens other doors — one must have talent to be a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the Miss America Organization, after all — but so few of them broke into mainstream entertainment roles. For every Vanessa Williams (the first African-American winner, who resigned when nude photos of her were published in Penthouse), there’s a Gretchen Carlson, co-host of the insipid Fox and Friends. Reality TV contestants earn more fame and fortune, but I suppose they lack the class and upstanding of those like this year’s winner, who was caught on tape over the weekend calling her predecessor “fat as fuck.”
So here we have this pageant, which shows to young women the values we inherently hold dear as Americans: smarts, for sure, but also grace, poise, and good looks. That the latter three qualities are much more valuable not just in the pageant but also EVERYWHERE (just in case you thought this was a meritocracy: it’s not) shows that the Miss America pageant is probably a fairly accurate mirror to hold up against the traditional, shallow American value system. Sure, it’s nice we’re getting a woman of Indian descent to represent “us” in whatever fun trips she gets to take, but the racist response from Twitter only proves that the people who care most about the Miss America pageant — other than the women who are competing, I suppose — are pretty vile and unsavory people.
So what’s the point anymore? Should we go on mostly ignoring the pageant and its winners until the contestants’ “diversity” sheds a public light on the completely unsurprising racism that runs rampant throughout the country? Because that’s what we have gotten out of the pageant this year: good for the judges for picking the first Indian-American Miss America, but anyone who expresses any shock that the Miss America audience isn’t as welcoming and accepting of a brown-skinned woman when a pretty blonde would do is certainly placing a lot more weight and power on the pageant’s symbolism than necessary.