Brow Beat

Even Without the Swimsuit Competition, Miss America Is Indefensible

Miss Virginia waves to the crowd while wearing a white bikini. Other Miss American contestants applaud behind her, all while wearing swimsuits.
No more. Donald Kravitz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions

Miss America contestants will no longer compete in swimsuit and evening-gown competitions, chairwoman Gretchen Carlson announced Tuesday. On Good Morning America, Carlson, the 1989 Miss America and former Fox News host, said the pageant won’t judge competitors on their physical appearance at all.

Actually, Carlson said the event is “no longer a pageant,” but “a competition.” Instead of marching across the stage in swimsuits, each woman will have a live conversation with judges about “her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America,” according to a statement from the Miss America Organization. And instead of formal gowns, participants will now be allowed to wear whatever they want.

Carlson was brought on to lead the organization’s board in January, after leaked emails prompted the organization’s CEO, president, and board chair, respectively, to step down. The unflattering emails showed, among other things, the leaders mocking women for gaining weight, insulting them for perceived sexual promiscuity, and laughing in agreement when a pageant writer referred to former winners as “cunts.” They also depicted an organization so engrossed with its own image that executives would compile opposition research on former participants who criticized the organization.

Notably, two of the three leaders who resigned in the scandal were men. In the aftermath, Miss America replaced them with an all-female leadership triumvirate, an apparent attempt to straighten things out and divert the public conversation away from the misogyny in the emails. It’s the first time that both the organization’s foundation and pageant arms have been led by women, and Carlson is the first former Miss America to hold her current position on the board.

On the Double X Gabfest podcast last month, I wondered what possible changes Miss America would have to make to get me on board with the organization’s mission. I doubted that simply putting women in charge would be enough to make radical, progressive changes to the institution—after all, there are plenty of women who love Miss America, and what’s good for women in the pageant system (more pageants!) won’t necessarily be what’s good for women at large (no pageants!). I tried to imagine whether I’d find it easier to support Miss America if the new leaders scrapped the swimsuit competition, arguably the most insulting, sexist part of a program that nevertheless takes pains to promote the elements that don’t revolve around the evaluation of women’s body parts.

Now that the organization has actually done it, I have my answer: No, I don’t think the pageant is notably more progressive without the swimsuit shtick. Without any judgment of physical appearance, the Miss America competition almost becomes less defensible—what are the judges judging, if not a woman’s ability to mold her body to conventionally desirable proportions? The remaining components of the pageant—talent, interview, on-stage questions, and the new conversation with judges about life goals—don’t lend themselves to a cohesive vision of best-ness any better than they did when evening gowns and swimsuits were part of the rubric. If women wanted to showcase their tap-dancing or piano skills, they’d audition for America’s Got Talent. If they wanted to get better at answering on-the-spot questions about current events, they’d join a debate league or mock trial. No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite grasp what great thing Miss America contestants are competing for, what the title means, and what’s supposed to make sense about the act of publicly ranking a group of 51 women against one another based on a set of arbitrary, disparate skills. There’s already a name for a competition where women compete against one another to prove their passion, ambition, intelligence, talent, and love for America: It’s called an election.

Carlson, who spent years diminishing feminist causes on Fox News before rebranding herself a feminist change-maker, framed the new “Miss America 2.0” as an inherently pro-woman endeavor. “Who doesn’t want to be empowered, learn leadership skills, and pay for college, and be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul?” she asked on Tuesday. “That’s what we’re judging them on now.” Carlson didn’t note exactly what part of being judged on womanly poise and presence by a mixed-gender panel is supposed to be empowering, or why a woman who shows the world the inside of her soul deserves money for college any more than, I don’t know, a young, low-income woman who clams up in front of a camera.

Realistically, there’s no way Miss America judges are going to suddenly stop scoring pageant contestants based on their looks, no matter how earnestly Carlson claims that the revamped contest will be open to women of “all shapes and sizes.” The current Miss America, Cara Mund, announced the organization’s swimsuit news on Twitter on Tuesday morning with a coy video of a white bikini vanishing in a puff of smoke. “We’re changing out of our swimsuits and into a whole new era,” the tweet said. The phrasing called to mind a pageant changing room, where contestants have historically gotten in and out of their bathing suits backstage—an erotic prospect for many, including our formerly pageant-owning president. I have to believe that, in an advertisement for a televised spectacle of idealized womanhood, that imagery was part of the point.