The XX Factor

Watch John Oliver Take on Miss America

Last night, John Oliver took on Miss America in a 15 minute Last Week Tonight segment that skewered the pageant’s backwards approach to offering college scholarships to young women—one that, as Oliver puts it, operates on the assumption that “the intelligence portion of the brain is located somewhere on the upper thigh.”

As the pageant struggles to maintain relevance in its ninth decade, it’s attempted to put increased emphasis on contestants’ intellect without taking its pervy eye off their bodies. (When they weren’t parading around in bikinis, which Oliver notes were actually glued to their butts with a spray adhesive backstage, this year’s contestants were asked to propose solutions to the wiretapping of civilians, the prosecution of whistleblowers, international hostage negotiation, and ISIS’ threat to America, all in just 20-second sound bites.) The disconnect is nothing new, but Oliver’s pointed commentary elevates the delicious irony to the next level: “How did the scholarship interview go?” Oliver asks mockingly at one point. “Well, my butt’s still sticky. I think I got it!”

But Oliver’s takedown of the pageant goes above and beyond these longstanding complaints of objectification to reveal that the pageant’s central claim that it substantively supports women—it aggressively bills itself as “the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women,” and claims to make $45 million in scholarship money available to its local and national contestants annually—is a sham. Oliver produces tax documents from the pageant’s local and state organizations to show that while the organization claims to “provide” tens of millions of dollars in scholarship money to women, it actually awards just a fraction of that sum every year. That $45 million number? Miss America gets to it by “offering” a handful of winners scholarships to multiple colleges—even though each winner will conceivably enroll at just one school—then counting each scholarship offer in its total sum to get to $45 million, whether they’ve actually paid out or not. Miss Alabama, for example, claimed to provide nearly $2.6 million in scholarship money to just one college, Troy University, in 2012; Troy told Oliver that because no Miss Alabama contestants accepted a scholarship at the university that year, the actual sum paid out to women was $0. If the horrific sight of the bikini competition isn’t enough to take down Miss America in 2014, perhaps its tax forms will.

Update, Sept. 22, 2014: A Miss America Organization spokesperson has emailed this statement:

John Oliver reaffirmed that the Miss America Organization (MAO) is the largest scholarship organization for women when he stated the number of scholarship dollars claimed “…is more than any other women-only scholarship we could find.”
We highlight the impressive, generous $45 million in scholarships made available in an effort to honor every one of our academic partners nationwide who make available cash and in-kind financial opportunities to the MAO and young women who participate in the program. Each year, more than 8,000 young women compete for scholarships through the volunteer, grassroots-driven Miss America pageant system in more than 950 local, state, and national competitions. These scholarships are awarded not just to winners of each pageant but to runners-up and participants.
As with any scholarship, the full amount awarded may not always be used as recipients’ plans change or evolve. The Miss America Organization works every day to administer these scholarships to young women across the country and encourages our participants to utilize these scholarships provided by colleges and universities nationally who partner to fund education.
The Miss America Organization is dedicated to improving the opportunities available to our program participants and remaining at the forefront of providing opportunities to women.