When Miss America announced in June that it would no longer include swimsuit and evening gown competitions in its annual pageant, the organization’s leaders promoted the decision as a sign of progress. New chairwoman of the board Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America titleholder and Fox News host who got a major pre-#MeToo settlement from the network after suing then-chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, said the pageant would now be open to women of “all shapes and sizes” who would “be empowered” and “learn leadership skills” without being judged on their body types. An advertisement for what was framed as “Miss America 2.0” showed a bikini disappearing in a puff of smoke, accompanied by text that said the pageant was “changing out of our swimsuits and into a whole new era.”
The ad did not specify exactly which era the pageant had entered, nor which era it had been inhabiting for the past century. Enlisting a panel of judges to rank women based in part on the aesthetic qualities of their half-naked bodies has not been family-friendly television in any era of Miss America’s existence. But, according to one state pageant director who spoke to the Wall Street Journal, the organization’s new CEO blamed the end of the swimsuit competition on what the Journal called “the sensitivities of the #MeToo era.” Apparently, giving women college scholarships for their lack of body fat was era-appropriate until a movement against workplace sexual harassment jeopardized a nonprofit built on ritualized ogling.
Though the pageant’s television deal with ABC was signed months before the board voted to axe the swimsuit competition, one Miss America board member told a state director that the organization couldn’t find “any production company or television partner that is open to continuing swimsuit.” This put Miss America, which was in the red as of 2016, in a pickle: The pageant presumably attracts much of its viewership with the promise of 51 women prancing around in bikinis and high heels. But circa 2018, there aren’t many elite corporate partners willing to slap their logos on 51 women prancing around in bikinis and high heels, what with the advent of this “era” of slightly heightened scrutiny of sexual harassers.
Now, some former Miss Americas and state pageant winners are questioning whether the organization made the right choice. While 29 Miss America winners signed a statement in support of the changes Carlson and her leadership team are making, many others have remained silent, and two board members quit after the swimsuit decision was announced. Two other board members said they were forced to resign, and the Wall Street Journal reports that 22 state pageant heads are trying to kick Carlson out because they don’t like where she’s taking the organization. At a recent Miss Massachusetts pageant, the host made light of the #MeToo movement in a skit, prompting one participant, a survivor of sexual violence, to turn in her crown.
Any distrust in Miss America’s current leadership has been compounded by the abruptness of the new leaders’ ascent. The pageant’s three top officials left the organization after leaked emails found them mocking contestants and former winners for their weight and perceived sexual promiscuity, and laughing along when someone called the women “cunts.” Carlson was one of the new all-woman guard brought in to repair the organization’s tattered reputation. Getting rid of the most egregiously sexist part of a fundamentally sexist institution would be a no-brainer for any decent businessperson charged with such a task.
But the protests raised by Carlson’s detractors within the organization (“It’s about fitness and nutrition,” said a former Miss Texas, who called the swimsuit competition “a vital part of Miss Texas and Miss America”) reveal a possible split between the kinds of people who participate in beauty pageants and the kinds of people #MeToo-sensitive corporations worry about alienating. As I wrote when the demise of the swimsuit portion was announced in June, a televised contest, justified by scholarship money, wherein young women compete to prove who adheres best to modern standards of feminine poise is no less insulting without the part in which contestants get scored on sex appeal. I don’t imagine there are droves of 18-year-olds out there who are desperate to be named America’s best woman by an organization that prizes constant smiling and conformity but who are offended by the thought of trading on their physical beauty. And it’s hard for me to picture the viewer who always liked the swimsuit competition, up until the point that the #MeToo movement taught her that women sometimes get groped at work, allowing her to recognize for the first time the unseemliness of what amounts to a lingerie parade.
Only Miss America would take itself seriously enough as a cultural phenomenon to make such a clumsy attempt at rebranding itself as a feminist enterprise. Plenty of lesser-known pageant franchises—Miss USA, the formerly Trump-owned domestic arm of the Miss Universe pageant, comes to mind—have existed for generations without any of this public hand-wringing over bathing suits, because their leaders seem to understand that beauty pageants have always been a vehicle for ogling woman.
If Miss America can’t resolve its differences of opinion, the organization could split, with the mainstream Miss America organization carrying forth without the swimsuit part and the pro-swimsuit contingent starting its own parallel organization. I’d bet that the former will eventually fizzle out as the public realizes that what’s left is discomfitingly hollow, and the latter would become what all beauty pageants ought to have been in the first place: insular, untelevised (or, at the very least, little-watched) worlds for young women who want some semblance of gender-affirming glory without having to hone any superlative talents. Or maybe the institution will become a vessel for heartwarming tales of reinvention, patriotism, and overcoming hardship, with a small side of musical performance and an overarching theme of regressive sexual politics. American Idol can’t fill that niche forever.