I watched 51 women march in high-heeled formation to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” while murmuring words like “confident” and “strong” in unsettling unison. I confused all the blond ones, as usual. I sat through two hours of Vaseline-toothed pageantry, in which the sad contestants were expected to clap, and the happy contestant was expected to cry, and they were all expected to do it in high heels.
But not in swimsuits! For the first time in nearly a century, Sunday’s Miss America pageant did not require its contestants to wear swimsuits. This is progress, pageant-master Gretchen Carlson tells us.
Instead of swimsuits, we got three separate interview portions in which young women answered questions so softball they were more like beach balls: What has been your biggest challenge? How is Miss America relevant today? Quickly now, slip into your ball gown and tell us about a gadget you wish you’d invented.
Behold, women, we are liberated.
How I wanted to like Miss America 2.0. Higher education is suffocatingly expensive — my God, I wanted to cheer for something that provides a $50,000 scholarship to savvy young players from Wyoming or Louisiana. The pageant made sure, this time, to make us aware of contestants’ college majors and cum laudes.
The elimination of swimsuits should have made the competition feel more feminist. Instead, without the distracting veneer of a nice beach sarong, the pageant felt more antiquated. Because its real issues have nothing to do with what anybody’s wearing.
This year, the Miss America pageant took place approximately 24 hours after Serena Williams was penalized an entire game at the U.S. Open. Her alleged crimes were smashing a racket and then calling the umpire a “thief” after he deducted a point for the racket infraction. Immediately, tennis fans protested that the refereeing had been sexist, less about Williams’s behavior and more about an umpire’s ego wounded by a rebuke from a woman.
Some of the most powerful testimonies came from men — pros such as Andy Roddick and James Blake, who confessed that they’d behaved much worse than Williams on the court and never received game penalties.
At first pass, these two competitions have almost nothing in common: The U.S. Open is a stunning display of physicality and athleticism. The Miss America pageant had 51 women walking in circles while stage-whispering adjectives that sounded as if they were lifted from a deodorant commercial.
But it’s hard not to think that the latter has impacted the former. For decades, Miss America was a model for womanhood — not only who looked good in a bathing suit but also who projected the values of femininity at the core of our society.
Contestants are expected to smile through exhausting talent routines and relentlessly project good cheer. They are graded on poise, which on Sunday was represented by the ability to answer inane questions in 20 seconds or less while saying nothing that could offend anybody.
They must be self-effacing. The winning contestant should immediately shake her head in disbelief, as if she doesn’t deserve it. The losers must assure her that she does — that they are happier for her than they would be for themselves.
For all the blather about how this year was going to be different, this year was not different. None of the three contestants who dared to be topical (“From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. freshwater but none for its residents to drink,” said Miss Michigan’s Emily Sioma) made the finals. The ones who did make the final five would have looked tremendous in bathing suits.
Writing about Serena Williams, cultural critic Rebecca Traister argued that the debacle had nothing to do with tennis but rather with how, despite lots of work and progress, we’re still collectively uncomfortable with unladylike behavior.
“It’s about the ways in which women’s — and especially nonwhite women’s — dress and bodies and behavior and expression and tone are still deemed unruly if they do not conform to the limited view of femininity,” Traister wrote.
After decades of defining ideal womanliness based on humility and positivity, it’s no wonder we’re thrown off by one who stands up and says, I’m angry, I was wronged, and I deserve to be here.
Again and again, Miss America 2.0 attempted to show us how much it had changed. How it’s become progressive. Words like “empowered” and “job interview” were sprinkled liberally. But in a real job interview, the questions are hard. The candidates acknowledge that they are deserving. They advocate for themselves.
The real revolutionary act of Miss America wouldn’t be to get rid of the swimsuit competition. It would be to get rid of compulsory smiles.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.