Did Feminism Kill Miss America?

Anna Quindlen argues that it’s long past time to let the Miss America pageant die with dignity.

Feminism killed off Miss America, but not in the way originally intended or predicted. It didn’t manage to overthrow unrealistic and bizarre standards of female beauty; if it had, Hollywood wouldn’t be chockablock with bobblehead starlets who think an oyster cracker is an entree. And it didn’t succeed in liberating women from being seen as sex objects, not when porn star Jenna Jameson can natter away on television about her career as though she were a bank manager.

But the revolution offered women many more outlets for the pursuit of power and prominence, outlets in which they didn’t have to walk around in the truly strange combo of swimsuit and stiletto heels. And make no mistake: the pageant was about the single-minded pursuit of power and prominence at a time when women had to pretend little interest in either. (Apparently the pageant folks ditched the Miss Congeniality title because all the contestants voted for themselves.) When I was a kid, Miss America had clout. Schools and hospitals and rubber-chicken dinners jockeyed to get her to come and say a few words. Incredible as it seems today, everyone knew her face. Like Paris Hilton, but with white gloves. And clothes.

A good line although, technically, Paris Hilton pretty much always has clothes on, except in her infamous sex video.

There are better contests today, with much better prizes. Katherine Anne Couric, from the great state of Virginia, wins the anchor seat at CBS and a reported annual salary equal to the gross national product of an emerging nation. Hillary Rodham Clinton, resident of New York, waits in the wings (or at least the Senate) for a possible stint as the leader of the free world. Granted, both require tap dancing and fixed smiles. But the white gloves are off and there are no dummies involved.

Some institutions simply run their course, falling beneath the wheels of progress. It happened to Schrafft’s, and John Wanamaker’s. But at least they died with dignity and aren’t hanging around, trying to remake themselves as McDonald’s with mac and cheese, or Old Navy with a tearoom. The people who run the pageant are embarrassing themselves and all the Miss Americas who were Miss America when Miss America meant something, although no one was entirely clear what it was. Kids get to stay up until midnight all the time now. Jiffy Pop goes in the microwave. And Miss America is cooked. Let it go. Just let it go.

While it doubtless true that winning the Miss America pageant is no longer the pinnacle of achievement for women, Quindlen undermines her argument throughout the piece, with its references to porn stars, reality television, and other cultural competitors. The pageant died, not because young girls aspired to anchor the network news or be president but because it has been rendered incredibly lame by the passage of time.

By trying to be all things to all people–a “scholarship pageant,” a talent show, a platform for cultural awareness, and a beauty contest–it wound up being amateur hour. Other television venues do all of those things better. Want smart people demonstrating knowledge of trivia? Try “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Amateur talent shows? The old “Star Search” and now “American Idol” don’t have baton twirling. Want to see some skin? There’s Cinemax and pay-per-view and the Internet.

Frankly, a girl would be better off trying to be the next Miss America than the next Katie Couric. The skill set is about the same–cute, perky, nice legs, and poise under pressure–and the odds much better. And winning a beauty contest is probably a more promising route to being a television news reader or morning chat babe than J-school. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, anyway.

And Hillary Clinton? Please. The woman is incredibly bright, to be sure, having graduated at the top of her class at Yale Law. But almost everything she has accomplished has been by virtue of having hitched herself to Bill Clinton’s wagon. You can’t get much more 1950s than that.

Crosspost from Gone Hollywood

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Popular Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DaveD says:

    I remain surprised at the number of people who believe that Couric’s solo hosting of the CBS Evening News is a big step in the evolution of equality for women in the work place. I realize I do parrot the feelings of others, but the network news has to have been dumbed down enough or fluffed up enough to finally be “friendly” to an individual of Couric’s style. Also, if I were a woman of some note who has been a solid reporter and has reported the news as a career, I would be a bit disappointed that Couric was THE one who finally attained this position. Ann Curry is one of those women who I enjoy watching report the news.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    Ms. Couric’s new job shows that equally talentless halfwit women can now become media stars as easily as talentless halfwit men. Maybe she can make really bright comments like ‘Where’s the girl soldier?’ on the evening news now.

  3. mary says:

    I do agree that Couric is anything but a news woman, and I second the emotion that Anne Curry would have been a great person to have the position.

  4. mary says:

    And let all of the pageants fall by the wayside..They are so outdated…

  5. Isn’t the Miss America pageant a chick thing anyway? The only people I’ve ever known to watch it are women.