WOMEN
09/06/2018 06:00 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2018

Can Miss America Ever Change Enough For It To Be Relevant?

HuffPost spoke with Gretchen Carlson and past winners about nixing the bikini competition and the future of the pageant during the Me Too era.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost Photos: Getty

Back in June, Gretchen Carlson announced that the Miss America pageant will no longer include its iconic swimsuit competition.

“We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit.’ So guess what? You don’t have to do that anymore,” Carlson, the new chair of the Miss America Organization, said at the time. 

The change was welcomed by viewers and critics alike who agreed that the outdated swimsuit portion perpetuates the very culture so many are fighting in the post-Me Too era. But as the Miss America competition nears on Sept. 9, many people can’t help but wonder: Can removing only one portion of a competition predicated on the objectification of women really change the essence of Miss America? 

Carlson, a former Miss America winner herself, responded with a resounding yes. 

“What are we objectifying now? Smart women?” Carlson told me in a phone interview on her way to speak at the Cannes Lions Festival in June. “Smart women who come onstage and perform a talent, and then we hand them scholarship dollars? Smart women who come out and show us their self-confidence and sass and what they want to achieve in life? How they want to be future female leaders in America? I mean, I don’t really understand where the objectification is anymore.” 

Miss America competitors have had mixed reactions to the announcement that the organization is cutting the swimsuit competition. Some former competitors celebrated the change, pointing out that the competition often led to eating disorders and damaging body image standards. Others argued the swimsuit portion allowed women to feel empowered about their bodies. 

Nina Davuluri, who was crowned Miss America in 2014, told HuffPost it’s about time the pageant retired the swimsuit portion, noting that Miss America’s actual responsibilities have little to do with wearing a swimsuit. 

“It’s timely for us to retire the swimsuit competition because once you compete in Miss America, you’re never required to be in a swimsuit again. You’re never photographed in a swimsuit ― it’s just not part of the job,” she said.

Being in a swimsuit has absolutely nothing to do with that job. Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014

“Your job is to be a speaker and an advocate,” Davuluri continued. “You’re traveling across the country working with children from babies to kindergarteners, from high schoolers to college news editors, CEOs and even the president. So you have to be relatable to a wide audience and connect with individuals. Being in a swimsuit has absolutely nothing to do with that job.”

The most recent Miss America winner, Cara Mund, expressed the same view in a statement published shortly after Carlson’s June announcement. She said that “it just doesn’t make sense on why we’re evaluating our candidates” on what they look like in a bikini. 

Mund added in a recent interview with HuffPost that the competition must evolve in order to survive, especially in the wake of the Me Too movement. 

“If you look at the history of Miss America, we’ve slowly evolved over time,” she said. “We started as a bathing beauties competition and then we added the talent aspect and the scholarship aspect as more women started going to college. I think now more than ever Miss America will continue to evolve.”

Other competitors, like Miss America 2017 winner Savvy Shields, felt the bathing suit competition was empowering

But a look at Miss America’s origins and lingering bias toward traditional values raises difficult questions about whether eliminating the pageant’s swimsuit portion is enough to modernize the competition’s historically beauty-focused ideals.

Miss America Over The Years

Miss America was established in 1921 by local businessmen in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a way to “extend the summer season,” according to Miss America’s website. In order to bring in a larger audience, the businessmen created the Golden Mermaid trophy given to “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.” And, voila, the bathing suit competition was born. 

Over the years, the swimsuits got smaller and smaller and the ratings larger and larger. Miss America attracted 27 million viewers when it first aired on television in 1954, according to the organization’s website. By 1960, 85 million viewers tuned in to the Miss America competition. Ratings rose during the ’70s as the pageant hit its 50th anniversary, but many began questioning the pageant’s relevance in the wake of the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements. 

The 2000s marked a turning point for Miss America. By 2007, the pageant drew only 2.4 million viewers when it aired on CMT and saw a slight increase in 2011 when the competition returned to ABC. Since 2013, the ratings have steadily dropped from 8.6 million in 2013 to 7.1 million in 2014 and 6.2 million in 2016.

Miss America contestants, representing their home cities and states, pose in one-piece bathing suits and sashes on the steps
American Stock Archive via Getty Images
Miss America contestants, representing their home cities and states, pose in one-piece bathing suits and sashes on the steps outside the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 9, 1927.

One could argue that the pageant itself ― women competing on their physical appearance to win a crown ― was no longer en vogue and generally viewed as sexist. And the swimsuit competition was the most obvious example of just how obsolete the pageant had become. 

But nixing the swimsuit competition is just the first in a long list of things that need to be corrected about the pageant. 

Currently, Miss America only allows women between the ages of 17 and 25 to compete. (Miss Delaware was stripped of her title and scholarship money in 2014 after the organization found out she “exceeded the age requirement.”) Critics argue that the age requirement peddles a virginal ideal of what women should look like.

Additionally, women who are married, divorced or who have children are not allowed to compete. Although the rule is not included on the pageant’s contestant requirements page, Carlson confirmed that the rule is still in place. (Although, she added, “we are in the process of looking at every single word” in the rulebook.)

Karl Nilsson, a spokesman for the Miss America Organization, clarified in an email that the competition recently broadened its age limit from 24 to 25 years old. 

When asked why Miss America still enforces its no-divorce, no-marriage, no-children policy, Nilsson said he would let me know “if and when the board determines to address those issues.”

The competition also used to ban women who’d had abortions, but now abides by a don’t ask, don’t tell rule.  

When asked if there was a possibility of changing these requirements in the future, Carlson said it’s “an evolving process.” 

“The swimsuit announcement is one of the first announcements in a phase of rejuvenating and reimagining the organization,” she said. “As we approach our 100th anniversary in two years, I would just say stay tuned for a lot of different announcements and changes as we continually wrap our arms around the organization.” 

A Beauty Pageant For Scholarship Money

The competition, which boasts more than 10,000 participants at the local, state and national levels every year, awards hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to contestants. 

The pageant prides itself on being the country’s “largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women.” (Although “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver debunked some of the pageant’s larger numbers in a 2014 piece for his HBO show, he confirmed that Miss America really is the largest provider of scholarship money to women in the country.)

That scholarship money makes Miss America and other competitions like it more than just beauty pageants ― for many women, they’re a stepping stone. Just look at Vanessa Williams (Miss America 1984) or Oprah Winfrey (Miss Black Tennessee 1971) and Diane Sawyer (America’s Junior Miss scholarship pageant winner 1963).

Every time before walking on stage for swimsuit, I remember thinking, 'It’s 20 seconds of your life. This is worth a scholarship.' Rosie Sauvageau Nestingen, Miss North Dakota 2012

It’s clear that the prize money and the exposure from Miss America can reap great rewards. But does it change the problematic fact that women are still competing in a beauty pageant to receive scholarship money? Not really. 

Rosie Sauvageau Nestingen, Miss North Dakota 2012, made this point in a July interview with Cosmopolitan.

“I knew that, in order to perform my talent and talk about the platform that I was so passionate about, I’d also have to deal with [the swimsuit competition],” she said. “Every time before walking on stage for swimsuit, I remember thinking, ‘It’s 20 seconds of your life. This is worth a scholarship.’ And at the end of the day, that scholarship money paid for my college tuition. It was worth it!”

Gretchen Carlson, The Liberator?

Many were elated when Carlson was tasked with modernizing the pageant back in January. Carlson became chair of the Miss America Organization’s board of directors after emails were uncovered last year that revealed misogynistic comments among its leadership. It’s the first time in the organization’s 97-year history that a former winner is leading the pageant. 

The former Fox News host became even more widely known after she settled a highly publicized sexual harassment lawsuit against executives at Fox in 2016. Since then, Carlson has been an outspoken advocate against workplace sexual harassment. 

Serving as chair of Miss America’s board of directors hasn’t been easy, Carlson said, telling HuffPost it’s a 70-hour-a-week volunteer position. But she’s excited to help overhaul some of the antiquated ideas Miss America has perpetuated since its inception in 1921.  

“It’s really important that Miss America gets up to speed with how women are seen in society and culturally,” she said.

Carlson is awarded the crown during the 1989 Miss America competition in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 16, 1988.
Jeff Kravitz via Getty Images
Carlson is awarded the crown during the 1989 Miss America competition in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 16, 1988.

Since my conversation with Carlson back in June, Miss America has endured a tumultuous couple of months. Over 20 former Miss America winners called for the organization’s entire board, including Carlson, to resign after Mund accused the former Fox News host of silencing and bullying her throughout her one-year stint as Miss America. 

“Right away, the new leadership delivered an important message: There will be only one Miss America at a time, and she isn’t me,” Mund wrote in a letter published earlier this month. “They told me that I’m not important enough to do big interviews, and that the major press is ‘obviously’ reserved for Gretchen.” 

Although Carlson has denied Mund’s accusations, Mund told HuffPost that the pageant “needs to ensure that there’s open, transparent leadership” ― something Mund says the organization simply doesn’t have right now under Carlson. 

The Myth Of A Modern Miss America

Most Miss America contestants are well-versed, intelligent and talented women ― there’s no denying that. (Have you heard the insane questions judges throw at them?!) Many go on to successful careers in advocacy work, politics and other fields that have nothing to do with wearing a crown on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Their capabilities, however, magnify the glaring problem that these women are still being paraded on stage in glittery outfits to compete for scholarship money. 

So will nixing the swimsuit competition, in addition to allowing contestants to wear all types of formalwear, really change the fact that women are quite literally competing to be the “best woman” in order to fund their education? Probably not. But, according to Carlson, it can’t hurt to try.

The organization, she said, is working on messaging to ensure the competition attracts a more diverse pool of contestants. (Although, she added, “we have a lot of outreach we still need to do.”)

“If you’re not a perfect 10 body, well guess what, now you can enter our program,” she said. “I’ve heard from a lot of these young women since we made the announcement, saying, ‘Thank you so much, because now I feel like I can be a part of this program.’ And that is heartening, because it makes me sad that they didn’t feel like they could be part of the program before, and now they do.”

Davuluri said she hopes cutting the swimsuit competition will open a door that will lead to a much more diverse pool of contestants. 

“This is really what matters to us,” she said. “We want to invite all women who have substance, who want a platform to promote their voices or their causes. And their outward appearance is not what is required to be a part of this organization.”

But will that invite include disabled bodies, fat bodies, butch bodies, bodies that don’t look like every other Miss America? Too soon to tell.

Miss America will air Sept. 9, 9-11p.m. ET/PT and 8p.m. CT on ABC. 

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