Beauty pageants hold a special place in American culture. Although the phenomenon is prevalent around the world, the modern beauty pageant’s conventions and connotations are accredited to American sensibilities. Pageants are often criticized for ranking women like prize horses and creating a potentially unattainable ideal beauty. But over the past century, pageants have developed a character to supplement these meat market criticisms. With the advent of television, aspects of the beauty pageant have been perpetuated on a nationwide level, using television conventions to promote a pre-established ideology of commercialism, nationalism, and womanhood. The genre analysis is deeply intertwined with its case study, the Miss America Pageant, and explores the pageant’s current adaptations for a new, digital, global community.
*The history of the American beauty pageant has been eliminated in the interests of time. However, please note that the beauty pageant dates back to 1854 as a supplement to PT Barnum’s traveling carnival. The competition ultimately failed due to the assumed reputations of the participating women; the public woman was often deemed of loose values and morals. The beauty pageant would not return until the turn of the century, thanks to major social changes including the industrial revolution, an increase in leisure time and the invention of the bathing suit.
The Miss America Pageant was developed by local businesses as a ploy to keep tourists in Atlantic City after Labor Day. Launched in 1921, it was advertised as an “inter-city beauty contest,” the event featured “thousands of the nation’s most beautiful women” (Riverol). From the beginning, the roles of commercialism, nationalism, and womanhood were evident: the event began as a commercial venture, featuring examples of perfect womanhood as representatives of their localities.
Women used the pageant to achieve fame and fortune. They poured into Atlantic City with dreams of becoming famous Hollywood or stage actresses. Contestants were required to be over 5’4, less than 130 lbs. and unmarried (Riverol); they provided the perfect physique for the entertainment industry, complete with prior media exposure and popular glamour. Ruth Malcomson, Miss American 1924, earned over $100,000 during her reign, more than Babe Ruth or the President (Ades). The pageant was discontinued from 1927 to 1933, due to a dwindling audience and potential negative attention. Protests from the surging women’s movement caused the competition to refocus its presentation of women. In 1935, the Miss America Pageant organizers hired Lenora Slaughter to overhaul the pageant’s image. Over the next fifteen years, Slaughter spearheaded a series of changes that became the defining criteria for the pageant: contestants were required to compete under the title of a city, state or region, a 1 am curfew was imposed on the women, they were chaperoned all week and could not be seen in the company of men, and the preliminary competitions were deemphasized in favor of the talent competition, thereby presenting the women as singers, artists, dancers, and anything besides sex objects (Riverol 42). These changes served to legitimize the pageant and eliminate the ideas of marketing physicality (Banet-Weiser 47). Slaughter successfully turned the pageant into something that women wanted to participate in (Ades) and managed to decrease the sexual quality of the pageant by reinforcing the morals and upstanding virtue of the women involved.
In the years leading up to World War II, the pageant developed as a national event that promoted womanhood. Representatives of civic organizations joined the board of directors, previously composed only of Atlantic City businessmen, and the organization became a non-profit vehicle promoting female scholarship and social pride (Riverol). During the war years, many large events were cancelled to divert funds to the war effort, but Slaughter convinced the American government to allow the pageant to continue, claming that the Miss America Pageant was “emblematic of the nation’s spirit” (Ades). Miss America 1943 then went on to sell $2.5 million in war bonds (missamerica.org). Although the budget for the pageant was severely reduced, the spectacle remained in full force. In 1945, organizers introduced a scholarship for the winner, thereby confirming the pageant’s goal of promoting female scholarship.
In 1954, the final round of the Miss America Pageant was broadcast on ABC to 27 million viewers in 8,714,000 homes (Riverol 55). Prior to this, the pageant was broadcast on newsreels and viewers were privy to certain segments of the pageant. Although popular, audiences could not fully appreciate the experience of attending the Miss America Pageant. By broadcasting the finals, the event was delivered into the home. The pageant became a media ritual, complete with conspicuous consumption, nationalism, and physicality (Couldry). Families could congregate around the television and celebrate this annual event.
During the next few years, the Miss America Pageant would be one of the largest grossing programs on television and networks competed for the rights. The popularity of the program also increased corporate sponsorship and allowed the pageant to offer over $200,000 in scholarships for its contestants and guaranteed a captive audience composed of women, the primary consumers in the home. The Miss America Pageant has become one of the longest running television programs in American history, along with Meet the Press (1947), The Today Show (1952), and The Tonight Show (1954).
Beauty pageants are one of the most spectacular examples of commercialism disguised as Americanism, “The women who participate in beauty pageants pose as particular commodities; they position their bodies and their personalities to ‘sell’ and idealized version of American citizenship and American life. Television, and the way it both produces and commodifies difference, similarities, conflicts, and affiliations, allows us to ascribe meaning and substance based on an interpretation of the visual” (Banet-Weiser 175). The contestants are used to sell products for the sponsors despite the organization’s detached approach from the commodity process. They are presented as representatives of their regions, once again confusing nationalism and consumerism.
The pageant originated as a marketing ploy and this trend continues into the new millennium. The pageant helped launch an essential marketing strategy: using women to sell products. . The first bathing revue promised thousands of the nation’s most beautiful women and drew tourists to the beach town. After the Miss America Organization switched to non-profit status, all of the funding for the pageant came solely from its sponsors. Toni Beauty Products (a division of Gillette), Campbell’s Soup and Kellogg’s were among the first to sponsor the television broadcast. Other featured products include house wares or beauty products, reinforcing the idea that the pageant’s target audience is composed mainly of women, mothers and homemakers.
The tourism video has become an integral part of the beauty pageant; often the contestants travel through the pageant’s host city, and are filmed while visiting the premiere tourist attractions. The role of the pageant as an endorsement for local businesses is reinforced by the 1974 pre-edited broadcast of the Miss USA Pageant, located in “beautiful Niagara Falls.” The contestants are treated to an extensive vacation, exploring the history and beauty of the Falls, and are filmed during all of their excursions. The video features beautiful women participating in historical activities around Niagara including the annual tug of war between the Canadian and American police forces. It is an amazing piece of marketing and nationalism all rolled up into 51 beautiful packages. “The Pageant is this example where you can be sort of nationalistic and patriotic and pro American and get to see some “T and A” all in the same event” (Tricia Rose – Ades). Over the years, the Miss America Pageant has frequented multiple venues including Atlantic City, New York City and Orlando.
The event is dependent upon the participation of the sponsors and endorsements are integrated into the program. In 2002 cameras followed the women into Lucky Brand Jeans and filmed as they ransacked the store and filled the dressing rooms. In the earlier broadcasts, contestants were used to endorse products leading into the commercial breaks. Former Miss Americas informed their constituencies that Toni beauty products helped her maintain soft, luxurious hair. The importance of sponsors to the pageant was confirmed in 1984 with the Vanessa Williams scandal:
The sponsors were waiting on the sidelines. We had received a warning that if we didn’t handle this right, it didn’t turn out right, they were going to pull out. If they pulled out at the end of July, there would have been no money and no Miss American pageant in 1984. And there would not be a Miss America pageant today. That’s how close we came. (Leonard Horn; former MAO CEO – Ades)
The Miss America pageant is a media ritual; annually, families gather to watch the pageant and bond over beautiful women and patriotism. Although ratings have wavered, Miss America is still woven into our psyche as a nation. Ellis outlines the importance of routine and standardization in television broadcasting in order to ensure a captive audience (Ellis 276). The pageant is such an event; every second Saturday in September, millions of Americans gather around the television. It is part of our cultural citizenship; we discuss the contestants, rate them according to our own expectations of American beauty and bond with our families and other families around the nation.
In 1954, the broadcast brought a private awards ceremony to the public, thereby creating its own content and media coverage. Prior to this, the pageant was an event for privileged individuals who could come to Atlantic City after the summer rush, and who could afford the prestigious seats. Like other special events, including the Academy Awards, presidential inaugurations or the New Year’s Eve telecast, the live audience was composed of individuals whose schedules and payrolls permitted them to attend, even though the ceremony was of national importance. According to Morley, “National broadcasting creates a sense of unity and of corresponding boundaries around the nation, linking the peripheral to the center and turn previous exclusive social events into masse experiences and above all, it penetrates the domestic sphere linking the national public into the private lives of its citizens” (Morley 419). The illusion of the pageant as a national event is essential to its position in patriotic identity: all of the states are represented, and the representatives are elected (by a small panel of judges representing the region) based on her merits. The parade of states is reminiscent of the parade of nations in the Olympics, giving each community a chance to be recognized.
According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, “What is instructive about the various strategies employed by the Miss America corporation to adapt their production to television is the recognition that what was happening onstage was the equivalent of a ‘news event’; identities were being crowned up there in front of the judges, and part of the self-production of the pageant was that it was, at its heart, a serious event” (Banet-Weiser 173). The idea of national unity often depends on the live-ness of the program. It is a time when individuals gather around the television, regardless of location, and collectively participate in a media event. From 1955 to 1979, Bert Parks served as the trusted anchor. Year after year, he performed as a mediator between the pageant and the audience. Attractive, amiable and humorous, he introduced the women and offered ‘live’ commentary regarding the proceedings.
The beauty pageant (with or without television) has major effects on the identity of the nation. It offers women a model of female citizenship (Banet-Weiser) and informs us of our cultural ideas and conflicts (Niemark). The national broadcast allows these ideologies to be disseminated to a wide audience, allowing for what Banet-Weister calls, “economics of visibility;” television democratizes both the accessibility and availability of national identity and positions representational politics as the heart of national identity (Banet-Weiser). The role of broadcasting is to create “a link between the dispersed and disparate listeners and the symbolic heartland of national life, and of this role in promoting a sense of communal identity within its audience at both regional and national levels” (Morley 418). This phenomenon is repeated again and again in the Miss America Pageant, “How could this happen to a girl from Anytown, USA?” The beauty pageant promotes the ideology of America, that we are capable of anything, that “we’ve got… pluck” (Niemark), in the most non-threatening of ways, through the female body.
Most of the critical analyses of beauty pageants revolve around their effect on American women. By promoting an ideal woman, beauty pageants create an unattainable goal for many of the women around the nation. The psychological effects of this are infinite. “All Miss Americas are produced and produce themselves as national bodies” (Banet-Weiser 179). The body featured by the beauty pageant is standardized according to height, weight, shape and maintenance. According to the Journal of Sex Research, the waist to hip ratios of Miss America winners (and Playboy centerfolds) varies between .68 and .72. Although the popular shape of women has changed over the decades, this ratio remains the same (Freese). For men and women, the expectation of an athletic body becomes the expectation of the nation; these women are disciplined and focused on the maintenance of their image, both physical and psychological, and this idealism, broadcast nationally through television, continues to affect the individual citizen and his or her expectations of themselves. Encoded as patriotic, the Miss America Pageant is decoded as an affront to the average American woman.
“Through the display of female bodies and the performance of a particular version of female subjectivity, the beauty pageant transforms a culture’s anxiety about itself – its stability as a coherent nation – into a spectacular reenactment and overcoming of that very anxiety” (Banet-Weiser 179). In Psychology Today, Jill Niemark outlines how Miss America helps define us as a nation and as American women, “Cinderella ought to come from the middle class and go to college; we are all equal but we love royalty; and superwoman is alive and well” (Niemark). With all of these expectations of the perfect American woman, generations of girls grew up wanting to be Miss America. This desire assists in the construction of a national identity.
The pageant insists on principles of female scholarship and sisterhood despite retaining its traditional parade of female bodies and the swimsuit competition. The question and answer portion (and in recent years, the video vignettes) serve to personify the contestants and emphasize their internal qualities while they strut their external qualities for the judges. This scholarly emphasis combined with the excessive style of the affair aids in drawing together domestic female audiences. The pageant is less of a strip show and more of a fashion show (O’Sullivan). Evening gowns, hairstyles, shoes, talent, and most recently the platform, a civic activity to which the contestant has dedicated herself, overshadow the bodies. These wholesome attributes serve to desexualize the pageant, thereby maintaining an image of upscale American womanhood and confusing ideas of exploitation and objectification.
The Global Digital Revolution
In our digital age, audience involvement has become the life preserver of the Miss America Pageant. Ratings are an essential component of any television show and Miss America’s inability to attract viewers has drastically affected the pageant’s format. The program now offers such gimmicks as the “call in vote,” (television viewers participate in the final vote), simultaneous online polls, and an instant celebrity judge contest where one lucky Miss America fan was selected to judge the pageant. Year after year, the organizers try to obtain viewers and fail. The pageant’s dependency on sponsorship and ratings came to a head in 2004 when ABC refused to renew its contract to broadcast the Miss America Pageant after receiving a record low of 9.8 million viewers from a record high of 33 million in 1988 (Chicago Sun Times).
On a global level, beauty pageants tout a similar popularity and nationalistic structure.. The 2004 Miss World telecast was ranked third in viewing audience, behind the World Cup and the Olympics. Once again, the “parade of states” echoes the Olympics’ “parade of nations,” a point in the program symbolizing the individuality and the similarity of the regions involved. Each woman serves as a representative and the show’s “parade” emphasizes the unity and cooperation. The beauty pageant, although considered an American phenomenon, is widely successful in a variety of markets. Women from all over the world compete in beauty pageants, repeating the nationalistic and commercial qualities previously outlined.
“Beauty pageants showcase values concepts and behavior that exist at the center of a group’s sense of itself and exhibit values of morality gender and place” (Cohen 2). Local beauty pageants are necessary to maintain the ideal local culture in global televised world. Extensive work has been, and continues to be, conducted into the phenomenon of beauty pageants across the world. In an analysis of Miss Sweden, Katarina Mattsson charts Miss Sweden as a “’seismograph’ of societal change” (Mattsson). Most recently, Indian beauty pageants have been at the forefront of this discussion due to the remarkable influence of American beauty standards on Indian women. Theorists including Radhika Parameswaran and Andrew Russell have explored how the expectations of Indian women are shifting with American imperialism. Despite the pageant’s emphasis on nationalism and culture, the women are expected to be tall, slim and light skinned.
Events such as the Miss World Pageant are broadcast globally and the differences in audience reception are crucial to their ratings overseas. From a television perspective, the beauty pageant is relatively cheap to produce, most of the costs are absorbed by the organization itself, but in order to guarantee ratings worldwide, the program must adhere to Olson’s theory of transparency: “any textual apparatus that allows audiences to project indigenous values, beliefs, rites, and rituals into imported media” (Olson 114). The pageant functions as a celebration of the host country’s culture, which is prominently featured in the onstage performances and regional tourist montages, but must possess global appeal in order to retain the largest audience.
The beauty pageant continues to hybridize with other television genres and most recently touts a love affair with reality television. As some of the earliest reality television, beauty pageants feature real women with real life issues, beyond gluing their bathing suits and rubbing their teeth with Vaseline. Audiences become interested in their lives, if only for two hours, and feel a connection to them. Coupled with our postmodern self-reflexivity, programs that emphasize beauty over the other pageant conventions have become widely popular. Shows such as Fox’s The Swan and ABC’s Extreme Makeover take the social effects of beauty pageants to another level and offer individuals who are psychologically affected by America’s romance with ideal beauty a chance to suffer at its hands for the amusement of millions of viewers.
Many of society’s ills have been attributed to the televised beauty pageant but its role in television history remains unquestioned. Miss America created a genre of television that has been co-opted and utilized by every possible industry; it continues to draw paying customers to a variety of products using the guaranteed gimmick of beautiful women. Like a female version of the Superbowl, the beauty pageant brings together disparate audiences in a massive display of commercialism, nationalism and physicality. Unfortunately, Miss America cannot charge $2.5 million for a thirty-second commercial, despite its position as an arbiter of national beauty. Even with sagging ratings, the pageant will not fade from American sensibilities; rather, it will be forced to change both its representation of culture and its method of disseminating it. Digital technologies have reduced the cost of global broadcasting while expanding the opportunities for interpretation. Pretty women will always attract consumers and, like the contestants themselves, it is now up to the beauty pageants to best display their assets.
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