Thursday night, Camille Schrier, a pharmacy doctorate candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University, won this year’s edition of the nearly-century-old Miss America contest. For the competition’s talent portion, she reprised the skill she used to secure her Miss Virginia title over the summer: She “ditched the glittery outfit for a lab-coat, goggles, and rubber gloves,” as Inside Edition explained, and dropped potassium iodide into colorful beakers of hydrogen peroxide, creating a reaction that produces streams of foam. The headlines announcing the win exalted the fact that a scientist won Miss America, and I watched some of my science writer friends get genuinely excited. Me? I do not see this as a breakthrough.
It is upsetting to me that people still think a woman having interests outside of being poised and beautiful is a revelation worthy of a headline, that pointing out that Miss America can be smart still seems worth doing. If this kind of thing were going to change anything, it would have by now. There have been women with science degrees in modeling and entertainment for ages, both in real life and popular culture. Lisa Kudrow, who starred as Phoebe Buffay on one of the most popular sitcoms in history (Friends), studied biology at Vassar and has published research on migraines.
Danica McKellar moved on from her time acting on The Wonder Years to study math, earning degree from UCLA (and then authoring some books that drive me nuts, for example, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail).* In the one widely shared portrait of Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician (and namesake for my dog), she’s decked to the nines in frills. I once ran into Cameron Diaz at an honest-to-god science festival. The entire premise of the 2000 Sandra Bullock comedy, Miss Congeniality, and the follow-up, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (skip it) is that participating in grooming rituals, halting a terror plot, wearing air-dried ponytails, and getting covered in glow-paint at a club are not mutually exclusive. We’ve known for ages that women have interests! In fact, for the talent portion of the 2015 Miss America competition, a medical technician did the same “experiment” on stage that Schrier did this year.
I will concede a point: The super-feminine being associated with science as a career, even in a kinda shallow way, is a good thing. If a young girl—or boy—sees Schrier in her pink goggles and feels a little more at home with whatever they are pursuing, OK, cool. But role models aren’t nearly enough to tip the scales in terms of women in labs, as I’ve written before. I worry that it’s not so much that the girly girls of the world aren’t aware that they could show up in a chem class, it’s that—speaking from experience—it can be hard to find community and be treated with respect once you are there. One of the greatest days of my undergrad physics experience, which otherwise involved a lot of swerving around various displays of masculinity, was spent tanning and studying linear algebra with a friend in a park, our notes splayed out on blankets. Then the friend switched schools in search of somewhere kinder. I simply cannot imagine anyone I knew in college watching Schrier’s science performance (it’s not an experiment, FFS) and having their implicit bias meaningfully chipped at.
What Schrier is definitely and primarily accomplishing here is not a win for girls in science, it’s a rehab of the Miss America pageant’s image. During the interview portion, a judge (Kelly Rowland) asked Schrier what she’d say to people who belittle the pageant. “We need to show that Miss America can be a scientist and that a scientist can be Miss America,” she answered. She hoped she could redefine “what it means to be Miss America in 2020.” (A conventionally hot woman who is has been allowed to share one of her main interests with us, apparently.)
Schrier’s been crowned during Miss America’s latest attempt to adapt to the times just enough to be relevant. “Ever since Miss America kicked off as a larkish beach publicity stunt in 1921, organizers had been trying to class it up—adding a talent contest, selling war bonds, doling out scholarships, taking up causes,” Amy Argetsinger wrote in the Washington Post in July 2018. That was just after the pageant’s new chair announced that she was scrapping the swimsuit portion of the competition. (There was a new chair because the old chair left after emails that slut-shamed past winners leaked.) “Of course, she says, physical appearance and poise will still matter—just as they would for any job interview,” wrote Argetsinger.
This shift, of sorts, would usher in “Miss America 2.0,” a vision designed to help flagging ratings. Picking a winner that would garner just the kinds of “Miss America Is a Scientist” headlines that we’re seeing now was probably part of the point. What Schrier has done is created a version of Miss America that’s just progressive enough to show your young nieces, to worm its way into school classrooms. This isn’t a win for science. It’s the science-washing of one of the most bullshit patriarchal rituals there is.
Correction, Dec. 23, 2019: This article originally misstated that Danica McKellar has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She has an undergraduate degree from UCLA.