Every September, right after the hurricanes, comes the Miss America contest. I love it. The pageant tells you more about our oddity, innocence and organized neuroses as a country than almost any other public event.
It is, of course, very hard to talk about these things anymore, as we all found out during the reign of Vanessa Williams. First, the fact that a black woman had at long last prevailed in the contest was received as a triumph of racial progress -- which in a sense it was -- but this could only be celebrated by ignoring the other fundamentally unprogressive features of the proceedings. Ask any feminist. Then, with the ghastly conclusion of the Williams Miss Americaship, when critics felt free once again to complain about the degrading, cattle-show aspects of the contest, a counterreaction set in. These complainers were taxed with being spoilsports, people (mostly women) who were affronted by or jealous of the sexiness of the contestants and who didn't want anyone to have any fun -- or something like that.
I start somewhere else. What interests me about this and all the other heavily sequined and newly high-minded tease shows -- Miss Universe, Miss USA et al. -- is their ultimately asexual nature. It is grotesque. The newly crowned queens are not appropriately rewarded, as they invariably have been in other times and places where such proceedings got their start. They do not become the prize of some lusty autarch for whom the whole show has been staged. Instead, they are given prizes: a scholarship, a speedboat, a week in Waikiki, a lifetime supply of fabric softener.
How far we have come. The unconsummated beauty parade, for something other than sacrificial purposes, is strictly an American invention. It is true that one of the earliest models for the Atlantic City extravaganza, renowned in literature and art as the "judgment of Paris," did not work out in the usual way. The prince, Paris of Troy, picked Aphrodite over Athena and Hera out of the lineup, and Aphrodite then gave him Helen in a kind of handoff. But ordinarily the purpose and outcome of the parade are more direct and are exactly what you would suppose. This has been true in cultures that could never even have heard of each other, lending weight to my suspicion that the event is downright archetypal, imprinted (for better or for worse) on the male brain since about the days of Homo habilis and that it is our revision of it that is perverse.
The Old Testament tells us how King Ahasuerus had his officers "gather together all the fair young virgins" of the land, who were then fixed up with "oil of myrrh . . . and sweet odors" and paraded before the king, who chose Esther from among them to be his queen. Simple as that. She didn't get an electronic waffle-toaster; he got her. In Marco Polo's "The Travels," we learn how Kublai Khan did it. He, too, sent his officers out to get all the suitable maidens. As with Atlantic City, there were raters or "valuers" to judge each maiden. "After inspecting and surveying every girl feature by feature . . . the valuers award to some a score of sixteen marks, to others seventeen, eighteen, or twenty . . . And, if the Great Khan has ordered them to bring him all who score twenty marks . . . these are duly brought." Those who win final approval "are divided into groups of six, who serve the Khan for three days and three nights at a time . . . ministering to all his needs."
We move on. A 19th-century British traveler in southern Africa tells us how King Lobengula of the Matabele did the Bert Parks thing. He, too, had officials make the preliminary roundup of "young upstanding virgins of about eighteen," who were then "bathed and . . . greased and anointed with what Europeans would call 'stinks,' but which they regarded as perfumes . . . Each of the young maidens . . . appeared in nature's garb, singing a little lullaby that sounded to me like 'Three Blind Mice.' Seated at the king's feet were a few of his oldest councillors, men versed in all the requirements. One of these men remarked, 'She is all right in the quarters, her build is good, but oh, what a face!' . . . Three or four were finally selected."
Just like now. Only instead of "stinks" and "oil of myrrh" we have the official antiperspirant of the contest, and instead of all these classic, grunting MCP's, we have a kind of denatured, heavily hair-sprayed, male-escort presence that presides over what is a surpassingly comic, anticlimactic affair, a kind of festival of narcissism.
It is true that much emphasis is put these days on the loftier achievements of those who are, simultaneously, being asked to turn just ever so slightly this way and that in their bathing suits and high heels, the better to be appraised by the judges. And a few other things are also true: one is that the woman has not been born who wouldn't like to look like that. Another is that lots of these young contestants, in addition to looking beautiful, look pleasant, bright and nice. A third is that their frequent profession of intent to do social good for the poor, the sick, the mentally ill and so forth makes it impossible to criticize them. I am reminded in this connection of Stephen Potter's advice in "Lifesmanship" about how you could disarm a prospective critic of your book merely by dedicating it "To Phyllis, in the hope that one day God's glorious gift of sight may be restored to her."
Well, I stand disarmed, at least where the starry-eyed young beauties who plan to give their lives to helping autistic children are concerned. But the same is not true of the proceedings themselves. These beauty contests -- suggestive, provocative, prurient, diverted to nowhere at the last minute -- seem to me to be related to sexuality, which is what they are about, in the same way that those civic-committee-drafted school prayers and pieties are related to religion: they lack the essence, miss the point, don't have the courage of their convictions. Someday, I keep thinking, just as they are playing the triumphal song and the winner is walking graciously down the ramp, bathed in the glow of her $90,000 worth of coming microwave appliances, King Lobengula or perhaps the Great Khan himself will suddenly appear, as if from nowhere. He will be wearing a suitable full-length ermine coat, and he will take his prize. I want to be watching the master of ceremonies' face.