What's Wrong with Beauty Pageants?

What's Wrong with Beauty Pageants?

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1960s Feminist Concerns with Beauty Pageants

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The famous Miss America protest of 1968 drew nationwide attention to women's liberation. Activists on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the pageant threw items representing the constraints of femininity into a freedom trash can and protested the objectification of women.

Led by New York Radical Women, the demonstrators offered up ten points of protest. So, in the words of Robin Morgan and other NYRW feminists, what's wrong with beauty pageants?

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The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol

Miss America Finalists, 1930s. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Society forced women to take seriously the most ludicrous beauty standards. Beauty contests paraded the women and judged them like animal specimens at a 4-H county fair.

A Catchy Phrase

That phrase became a famous feminist encapsulation of the objectification of women.

Robin Morgan, who wrote the Miss America protest materials and other women's liberation documents collectively with others in the movement, became a significant feminist writer and editor of books such as and essays such as "Goodbye to All That." The Miss America protesters criticized the beauty pageant for reducing women to objects and reflecting patriarchal society's emphasis on physical beauty and consumerism.

Objects and Symbols

The term "mindless boob" has long been useful to describe someone who is stupid or foolish, a simpleton with no autonomous relevance or intellectual value. The phrase "Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol" plays off of that meaning and the use of the word as slang for women's breasts.

As NYRW explained, oppressive beauty pageants epitomized the daily role all women were forced to play. A woman was judged on her beauty as a physical specimen, like an animal paraded down the runway at the county fair. "So are women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval," the feminists wrote.

They even decided to crown a sheep as part of the protest, to symbolize this degrading syndrome.

'No More Miss America!

Although there were additional reasons to protest Miss America, such as the racism, consumerism and militarism of the pageant, the "ludicrous" beauty standards were a chief concern and a pervasive aspect of society that the feminists rejected.

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Racism With Roses

Vanessa Williams and family with reporters after her historic 1984 win of the Miss America contest. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In 1968, the Miss America pageant had never had a black finalist.

Miss White America?

The women's liberation groups pointed out that in more than 40 years since the dawn of Miss America in 1921, the pageant had never had a black finalist.

They also noted that there had been no winners who were Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Hawaiian or Alaskan. The "true Miss America," the feminist protesters said, would be an American Indian.

When Privileged Males Set the Standards

Among the goals of the women's liberation movement was the analysis of oppression in society. Feminist theorists studied how oppression based on sex related to oppression based on race. In particular, socialist feminism and ecofemnism both sought to change the unjust practices of patriarchal society, including sex or gender discrimination, racism, poverty and environmental injustice.

Women's liberation recognized that the historical power structures of society gave a privileged place to white males, at the expense of all other groups. The women who protested at the Miss America pageant viewed the parading and judging of women according to traditional standards of "femininity" or "beauty" as another example of male supremacy. They connected the injustice of objectification to the lack of racial diversity in the pageant.

In the 1930s and 1940s there had even been an official pageant rule that Miss America contestants must be "of the white race."

Diversity at Last

In 1976, Deborah Lipford became the first African-American top 10 semi-finalist in the Miss America pageant. In 1983, Vanessa Williams won the pageant to become Miss America 1984, the first black Miss America. She later resigned her crown because of a nude photos scandal, and runner-up Suzette Charles became the second African-American to be Miss America. In 2000, Angela Perez Baraquio became the first Asian-American Miss America. Some critics have argued that even as the Miss America pageant became more diverse at the end of the 20th century, it continued to idealize its traditional beauty image of white women.

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Miss America as Military Death Mascot

Women protest Vietnam War at White House, January 1968. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

The use of the pageant winner as a "cheerleader" for the military's operations abroad was akin to exploiting her as a "mascot for murder," NYRW said.

Strong Anti-War Sentiment

The Vietnam War claimed thousands of lives and faced strong opposition in the United States. Many activists in the women's liberation movement shared with the anti-war movement a desire for peace.

Women's liberation also studied the common ground among different groups of people who were oppressed in male supremacist society. Oppression based on sex differences could be seen as related to the violence and killing that went along with war and military operations around the world.

Supporting the Troops, or the Men in Charge?

In 1967, the Miss America Pageant sent the first Miss America USO troupe to Vietnam to entertain soldiers. While this was presented as an effort to support the troops - that is, individual soldiers - it was also seen by some as support of the war, or of war and killing in general.

In publicity materials for the Miss America protest, feminist leaders referred to the Miss America "cheerleader-tour of American troops abroad" as another way in which pageant winners were exploited by society's powerful forces. Miss America, the protesters said, was "sent to Vietnam to pep-talk our husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends into dying and killing with a better spirit."

Feminism, Peace and Global Justice

The debate over the "military-industrial complex" and widespread deployment of troops around the globe encompasses much more than the Miss America pageant. However, feminist activists believed in constantly calling attention to the many ways women were pressured or used to support powerful men's goals. Historically, powerful men's goals had often resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. Many feminists, such as socialist feminists and ecofeminists, repeatedly linked global injustice with subjugation of women. The Miss America protesters adopted a similar line of thinking when they decried the use of pageant contestants as "mascots for murder."

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The Consumer Con-Game

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The entrenched corporate power structure of the U.S. benefited from idealized images of women, including when Miss America endorsed their products.

There She Is… Plugging Your Product

The Miss America protest was led by New York Radical Women. The feminist activists distributed pamphlets and press releases detailing their objections to beauty pageants, including the fact that the Miss America winner would be a "walking commercial" for the companies that sponsored the pageant.

"Wind her up and she plugs your product," Robin Morgan wrote in a press release. It was hardly the "honest, objective endorsement" it was claimed to be. "What a shill," the women's liberation group concluded.

Consumerism and Feminist Theory

It was important for women's liberation to examine how corporations and capitalist power structure benefited from idealized images of women, whether as beautiful pageant winners or ecstatic consumers. Earlier in the 1960s, Betty Friedan had written in The Feminine Mystique about how beneficial the happy housewife image was to manufacturers of household products and advertisers.

Feminists continued to spot the corporate conspiracy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, voicing their anger that women were denied independence and empowerment while being used by powerful men to make a profit. In 1968, Miss America was added to the list, another example of consumerist society's exploitation of women.

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Competition Rigged and Unrigged

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The contest reinforced the hyper-competitive message of supremacy that prevailed in U.S. society. "Win or you're worthless," the protesters called it.

What's Wrong With (Beauty) Contests?

"We deplore the encouragement of an American myth that oppresses men as well as women: the win-or-you're-worthless competitive disease," said women's liberation groupNew York Radical Women.

Although some of the protesters' complaints about beauty pageants revolved around Miss America's objectification of women, this particular aspect concerned men and women, boys and girls. These feminists wanted to rethink the message of fierce competition and supremacy that was drilled into all members of society.

Rethinking Competition Through Feminism

The winner of the Miss America pageant would be "used," while the other 49 young women would be "useless," according to the press release written for the protest. Many feminists envisioned new approaches to society that would leave behind the emphasis on competition. Often, women's liberation groups considered new ways of structuring leadership, moving away from patriarchal society's traditional hierarchies. Consciousness-raising and rotation of women's liberation group leadership were two among many methods of trying to be more inclusive and less reflective of typical male power structures.

In the PBS American Experience documentary Miss America, feminist Gloria Steinem reflects on the Miss America pageant's competition aspect as it relates to oppression of women.

Women had traditionally been encouraged to compete with one another to "win" over men. Gloria Steinem points out that women were taught to compete for men, just as all marginalized groups in society had to compete for the "favors of the powerful. So what could be a greater example of that than a beauty contest?"

The 1960s feminist protesters rejected the notion that Miss America's crowning of one winner supposedly represented all women. What the pageant did instead was reinforce the idea that the other 49 women who competed were not good enough - let alone the millions of other American women who watched.

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The Woman as Pop Culture Obsolescent Theme

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The obsession with youth and beauty tried to make women look younger than they were and soon enough rejected even previous winners as they dared to age normally.

Pop Culture Obsolescence

Throughout the 20th century as Hollywood, media, television, film and video images became more widespread, so did the notion that stars had to look or even be younger than they were.

It became something of an oft-repeated assumption that actresses lie about their age. It might seem silly if it weren't for the fact that a heavily male power structure could put women out of work because they had dared to age out of their early twenties.

Fear of Normal Aging

Other industries, such as airlines, also seized upon the idea of the young, single, beautiful woman. Throughout the 1960s, most airlines continued to terminate their all-female flight attendants once the women turned either 32 or 35 (or, if they got married). This obsession with youth and beauty in women, and the insistence that only youth could be beautiful, were on display at the Miss America pageant.

"Spindle, mutilate, and then discard tomorrow," wrote Robin Morgan in her press release for the Miss America protest. "What is so ignored as last year's Miss America?" She went on to say that the "cult of youth" reflected the "gospel of our Society, according to Saint Male."

Fear of Forty

Feminists called attention to the cult of youth on other occasions as well.

Feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women began working on the issue of age discrimination in employment and other areas of society. During the 1970s, feminist Gloria Steinem famously quipped to a male reporter who told her that she did not look 40 years old, "This is what 40 looks like. We've been lying for so long, who would know?"

No More Miss America Obsession

At that 1968 Miss America protest, hundreds of women gathered to protest the pervasive obsession with youthful beauty. The statement that a woman should be valued as a person, not a beautiful "woman as pop culture obsolescent," brought a good deal of attention to the new women's liberation movement. The feminist protesters could not support a contest designed to breathlessly search for the its annual beautiful young thing.

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The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination

The Adoration of the Magi: 1504.

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The Miss America contest paid lip service to wholesome images of womanhood while parading women's bodies in bathing suits. Feminists criticized the insistence that women be both sexual and innocent, and rejected the characterization of women as either up on a pure, motherly pedestal or down in the lustful gutter.

Madonna Or… ?

Deriving from Freudian psychology, the syndrome refers to men forcing all women into a dichotomy of being either pure, motherly and on a pedestal OR being a lustful, and presumably depraved, prostitute.

"Madonna" refers to the artistic depiction of Christianity's Mary, mother of Jesus, shown with her Christ child as holy, conceived without sin, saintly and/or pure, among other church doctrines.

The syndrome is sometimes referred to as "Madonna-prostitute syndrome." The idea has been picked up in popular culture discourse. Many people use it to describe a man who "can't" or won't be attracted to a woman once he sees her as a mother, because she is placed in one of those two polarized categories, the mother versus the sexual being. On the other hand, the women who evoke any idea of sexuality are somehow "bad" and unworthy of actual love, or commitment. This troubling false dichotomy is disturbing, but it also leads to a confused desire to have all women be both categories at once: ultimately pure and innocent while unfailingly sexually attractive.

Bathing Suit Beauties

Feminists witnessed the "Madonna-whore combination" at work in the Miss America pageant. Comparing Miss America to a Playboy centerfold, the radical feminists explained: "To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope… " Miss America conjured up wholesome images of youth, beauty, pure womanhood and patriotic good girls, but at the same time emphasized physical attraction above all else and paraded women down a runway in bathing suits for the pleasure of viewers.

While the swimsuit competition has generated the occasional public debate, not all Miss America watchers stop to grapple with the idea of simultaneously revering wholesome young women and ogling their attractive bodies.

No More Unbeatable Combination

The women's liberation movement challenged the U.S. public in general to resist categorization of women, including the categories of pure-Madonna-pedestal versus lustful-sexual-gutter. In the 1968 Atlantic City protest, feminists challenged the Miss America pageant to stop asking women to be, absurdly, both at once.

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The Irrelevant Crown on the Throne of Mediocrity

Crown of Mary of Modena, queen consort of Britain's James II.

Museum of London/Getty Images

The women's liberation movement criticized institutions that silenced women's political voices. In later years, Miss America contestants would speak out more on social and political issues.

Standing Out, Blending In

While demanding that women be superlatively beautiful, the Miss America pageant somehow forced them at the same time to conform to a common image. Women's liberation activists accused the pageant of representing women as "apolitical." This, according to NYRW, was how women were "supposed to be" in society.

The line of thinking went: Miss America contestants dare not stray too far from a certain image of beauty, nor from prescribed morals, habits and ideas, and certainly not from a sweet, demure personality. "Conformity is the key to the crown-and, by extension, to success in our society," declared Robin Morgan in the August 1968 protest publicity materials.

Miss America Moves Into the Future

The Miss America pageant changed in some ways after the 1960s protests. Some pageant watchers have observed that the organization does respond to shifts in society, and the women are no longer strictly "apolitical." The platform element of the competition was adopted by the Miss America pageant two decades later, in 1989. Each Miss America contestant chooses a relevant social issue, such as domestic violence, homelessness or AIDS, and the winner addresses her chosen platform's issues throughout the year she holds the title.

Miss Pro-Choice America

Miss America 1974 gave the pageant an early dose of politics.

Rebecca King spoke in favor of legal abortion, a hot topic when she won the crown in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Rebecca King even ended up speaking at a conference of the National Organization for Women, bringing together the pageant and the feminist organization.

Forward March or Marking Time?

The social activism and protests of the 1960s and 1970s had many beneficial effects, perhaps including more political involvement from Miss America candidates and winners. However, the women's liberation criticism that the contestants "must not be tall, short, over or under what weight the Man prescribes you should be" may not fall so easily by the wayside.

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Miss America as Dream Equivalent to… ?

Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn, June 7, 2016, after winning primaries in several states, resulting in enough pledged delegates to win the Democratic nomination for president. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Why were all little boys told they could grow up to become the president, while girls were told they could aspire to be Miss America?

'Miss America As Dream Equivalent To… '

"In this reputedly democratic society, where every little boy supposedly can grow up to be president, what can every little girl grow up to be? Miss America. That's where it's at."
- from New York Radical Women's list of objections to the pageant, distributed at the time of the protest

Robin Morgan wrote "Miss America as dream equivalent to… " in a press release list of criticisms. Carol Hanisch and hundreds of other women demonstrated outside and inside the pageant. The Miss America protest called the nation's attention to the sexist discrepancies in treatment of not just men and women in U.S. society, but the sexist treatment of boys and girls.

But What CAN I Grow Up to Be?

"Real power," the feminists argued, was restricted to men. Before they were relegated to the media'sinvented role of "happy housewife," girls were offered the dream of one glamorous year wearing a crown and holding flowers.

In subsequent decades, the polarization of those dreams for boys and girls eased a bit. By the early 21st century, it was no longer unlikely that a woman could be president of the United States, and the Miss America pageant heavily emphasized its scholarship programs as much as its praise of beauty. However, the revolution in encouraging success equally to boys and girls was still incomplete.

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Miss America as Big Sister Watching You

Barbara Alper / Getty Images

A beauty pageant may provide a friendly "big sister" guide to new contestants to help them through the process, like a sorority does - but that is not how feminists meant it in 1968 when they described Miss America as "Big Sister watching you."

Judging Bodies, Controlling Thoughts

New York Radical Women saw the relentless pressure on women to focus on physical beauty as an enslaving kind of thought control, akin to Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell. In that dystopian novel, of course, the authoritarian messages end up controlling people as much as the actual authorities do.

Image or Accomplishments

Robin Morgan and other NYRW feminists described Miss America as trying to "sear 'the Image' onto our minds, to further make women oppressed and men oppressors." The women's liberation movement's critique of Miss America described the pageant as a continuation of the most stereotypical images of women. A beauty contest was a dangerous way of replacing assertiveness, individuality, achievement, education and empowerment with false hopes, consumerism and "high-heeled, low status roles."

It had been five years since Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published. That bestseller rapidly spread the message about media-created "happy housewife" ideals and the "sexual sell" that defined a woman's role in life as serving or pleasing a man. During the late 1960s, feminist theorists and organizations such as the National Organization for Women tackled the issue of images of women, such as with the NOW Task Force on the Image of Women in Mass Media.

Inside a Woman's Own Head

While the corporate product sponsorship, competition, racism and militarism of the pageant were societal grounds for complaint, the idea of "Big Sister watching" was something that reached inside a woman's self. The Miss America pageant and other impossible standards seduced women "to prostitute ourselves before our own oppression," according to the NYRW critique.

The women who protested on the boardwalk that day cried "No more Miss America!" because they saw how common it was for women to succumb to society's demand that women care about Miss America and all the trappings of beauty and body mystique that went along with it.