After Mary Richards, Murphy Brown, and Carrie Bradshaw; after Jane Roe, Sally Ride, and Hillary Rodham; after Paris flipping Hilton—of course Miss America is not the gal she used to be. In the 1960s, at its summit, the Miss America Pageant had a TV audience of more than 80 million viewers and a corresponding purchase on the republic’s idea of womanhood. Since then, the pageant’s audience and its stature have slumped to the point that ABC, having tried and failed to goose the show’s ratings with reality-TV stunts, was unwilling to air it. Saturday night’s coronation transpired on Country Music Television. Commercial breaks featured an enticing promo for a car-improvement show called Trick My Truck.
CMT had an evident mandate to juice things up while simultaneously returning the pageant to its roots. The venue was not the Atlantic City of lore and yore, but Vegas, baby. The host was James Denton, who plays Teri Hatcher’s love interest on Desperate Housewives. Denton is often referred to as “hunky,” which is to say he’s as rugged as a fantasy fireman—a dreamboat for gentle seas and, as such, a sex symbol right in step with the pageant. Abetting Denton were Katie Cook, who specialized in delivering backstage reports at moments when nothing was going on backstage, and “CMT personality” Lance Smith, dispatched to a viewing party in a suburb of Portland, Maine. The party hostess told Lance this was the 31st year she’d hosted her get-together. The guests assembled in her living room hooted and woofed while wearing sashes and tiaras. In the background, you could see spatulas lined up along the kitchen wall.
The contestants had scarcely introduced themselves before the semifinals arrived. Miss District of Columbia glowed orangely, her tan putting me in mind of former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green. Miss Virginia spoke of her community service: “I’m a beauty queen who hangs out at maximum security prisons. It’s incongruous.” Accent on the gru. Miss Texas had platinum hair and a uranium smile. These and seven others progressed to Swimsuit.
Only since 1997 have contestants been permitted to don bikinis for the swimsuit competition. This year, all of them did, and it still managed to be anti-erotic. The pageant might objectify women, but it certainly doesn’t turn them into sex objects. “Physiological specimens” is closer to the mark. There is an infantilizing force at work that denies standard-issue desire. Reviewing the telecast for the New Republic in 1957, Philip Roth remarked that “all those lovely legs are really girls … who, when asked what they admire most, will talk to the flesh’s distraction about their brothers and their Daddies.”
Half a century later, nine of the 10 of semifinalists flowed onstage for the evening-wear competition with their fathers at their sides and their accompanying voice-overs ripe with filial devotion. Miss Oklahoma: “I chose my daddy as my escort.” Miss Virginia: “All of us here are sort of our dad’s girl.” How about you, Miss Alabama? “I don’t know if I’m really a daddy’s girl, but we do have a special relationship. …”
The 10 semifinalists became five finalists, and the five competed in Talent. There was some rousing Chopin, some touchingly cringe-worthy singing. Miss D.C. did a tap number said to have a connection to Broadway’s Aida. The five finalists became three final-finalists, and Denton asked each to describe a character-shaping experience. Miss Oklahoma breathed some lines about her gawky girlhood, and that was good enough to clinch it.
Thus, Jennifer Berry of Tulsa ascended to the throne. Her tears fell like confetti as the producers piped in the voice of Bert Parks to serenade her. There she is, Miss America—not your ideal, perhaps, but indisputably the queen of a niche. Daddy must be proud.