Does Miss America Miss the Mark?

The Miss America Pageant is known to many and has certainly been prone to controversy and differing opinions over the years. The pageant is now over 100 years old and with its longstanding presence in society I feel it is important to recognize Miss America’s evolution over the years.

The contest originated in 1921 at a fall festival in Atlantic City where the audience would judge the woman based on their personality and appearance, with the young women then being entered into a bathing suit contest. And, while bad press for the pageant was immediate, Miss America had become an established institution by the 1940’s. At this time the women were judged in four categories: swimsuit, evening gown, talent, and intellect and personality, the winner being awarded with an academic scholarship.

It was in the late 1960’s that the pageant became more frequently criticized for its lack of diversity as well as its promotion of unrealistic beauty standards. Prior to the 1960’s there had been a rule in place that contestants must be “of good health and of the white race.” And while this rule was no longer in place by the 1960’s there were protests against the lack of diversity and representation in the pageant. Additionally, feminists felt that the pageant objectified women. This led to changes in the pageant where there became more of an emphasis on the financial assistance that was given from winning the pageant as well as the service-oriented activities. 

Thankfully, headway can be seen in the areas of diversity and feminism throughout the next few years. While it was long overdue, the first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned in 1984 and since then at least 11 other minority women have won the title as well. Additionally, the judge’s seats for the pageant that had once been taken by predominately white judges began to diversify in career, relevance, and diversity.

Advances were also made in regard to feminism and the portrayal of women as the pageant moved away from the physical significance, officially getting rid of the bathing suit portion in 2018. Since this change the number of participants increased from 5,000 to 6,500 participants which demonstrated this need for this change and bodes well for the organization’s future as well.

However, while changes continue to be made, the Miss America Pageant struggles to make everyone happy. As the pageant attempts to adjust with the times and focus more on the women’s attributes over appearances, they still field complaints that the program is no longer a “pageant”
 as there is less emphasis on the beauty portion.  

Furthermore, while progress has been made in the areas of race and an emphasis on the women’s education, there is always more that can be done. For example, former pageant winner, Erika Dunlap calls for more to be done to help women of color participate in these pageants whether that be through covering the costs of the elaborate gowns or assistance in the talent portion. It is important for all women to have access to such an opportunity, especially when as recently as 2021 the scholarship awarded was as high as $100,000. This money towards education can be life changing and offer opportunities that may have been seemingly impossible.

To conclude, I feel that Margot Mifflin summarizes the Miss America Pageant well when she states that the pageant has always been “in dialogue with feminism, but behind feminism.” Throughout the years the Miss America pageant has certainly experienced its ups and downs however there is something to be said for how the organization has withstood the test of time and is working hard to preserve for the benefit of its contestants even as viewership dwindles. 

One thought on “Does Miss America Miss the Mark?

  1. Very interesting read! I have a good friend from high school who does these kinds of pageants and she really, really enjoys it. I feel like we tend to romanticize the pageants as they used to focus on the pure beauty and body of the women, but have gotten better over the years focusing more on what’s on the inside.


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