For the most part, the Miss America pageant is to American women what the Video Music Awards are to American music: a reasonable idea taken infinitely too far. It's the No Child Left Behind of well-roundedness, with a collection of contestants training themselves to be as good as possible at a very narrow set of skills, sharing only a complete mastery of feigned enthusiasm. But for God's sake, it's great television.
The high point of each Miss America pageant — or, at least, the part those watching with ironic detachment look forward to the most — is the question-and-answer period. Ever since Miss South Carolina offered one of the worst answers to any questions in world history in Miss Teen USA 2007, obnoxious watchers like myself have eagerly anticipated the part of the big show when the contestants are offered not-terribly-tricky questions and asked to provide coherent, 20-second responses.
Why do we look forward to this? Because I am/we are jerks — but also because there's a lot of truth to it. I can't evaluate how well a contestant sang (except for Miss Texas's rendition of "Son of a Preacher Man" during Sunday's night show, which, yeesh), but I can evaluate how well the contestants tackled questions about politics.
Of which there were a lot during the Miss America 2016 pageant. Contestants were asked about Kentucky clerk Kim Davis declining to issue gay marriage licenses, about Planned Parenthood funding and about Black Lives Matter. And, honestly? They did pretty well.
Their job is to be attractive and talented and savvy. Mine is to make politics interesting and informative. And here is where the two meet:
The Miss America contestants' answers, ranked
There were seven contestants asked to answer questions from the seven judges. They were told that their answers would constitute 20 percent of their final score, which, host Chris Harrison said, meant that "it could all change, right here."
But clearly, it didn't.
7. Miss Georgia, Betty Cantrell
Question from: Country singer Brett Eldredge
Miss Georgia ended up winning the entire contest — despite getting (1) the second-easiest question of the bunch and (2) mangling it. Eldredge asked the question twice, because Cantrell couldn't hear him the first time, perhaps because the audience started cheering when the singer said "Brady."
The question: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady [applause] was suspended for his part in the so-called Deflategate scandal, then reinstated by the courts. Legalities aside, did Tom Brady cheat?
Did he cheat. That's a really good question. I'm not sure. I think I'd have to be there to see the ball and feel it and make sure it was deflated or not deflated. But if there was question there? Then yes, I think he cheated. If there was any question to be had, I think that he definitely cheated and there and I think he should have been suspended for that. That's not fair.
You can see her formulating her opinion in real time. It's a fascinating psychological exercise. But yooooo, what a train wreck. And she won!
However. Luckily for Cantrell, the question had nothing to do with politics, so we will let it stay there. That the Patriots are a terrible organization did not play any role in our ranking.
6. Miss South Carolina, Daja Dial
Question from: Amy Purdy, actress and paralympian
Dial was the second contestant to be asked a question and, interestingly, it was about gun violence. The contestants drew judges names from a bowl, so there was no way to know that Dial, from a state that recently saw a horrible act of gun violence, would get this topic.
The question: America loves our 2nd Amendment, but gun violence continues to be a tragic problem. Do you support a ban on military-style assault weapons?
I don't. But I think it's because we need to increase education. We have to go back there. If we teach people the proper way to use guns then we will reduce the risk of having gun-related ... gun-related accidents. It starts with education.
Everyone agrees that gun owners should know how to use their weapons responsibly. But Dial's answer obviously avoids the question itself. The topic is not people using semi-automatic rifles to accidentally shoot themselves or others. Dial could have used the question to talk about what happened in Charleston, or, say, to argue for better mental health screening. She didn't.
Related: I would like to hear a discussion over "America loves our 2nd Amendment" during next year's general election presidential debates.
5. Miss Mississippi, Hannah Roberts
Question from: Zendaya, who I'd never heard of because I am old
A Kim Davis question!
The question: Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was jailed for defying the Supreme Court's order to issue same-sex marriage licenses. She claims the order violates her religious freedom. Does it?
It absolutely does not violate her religious freedom. [applause] That is her job that she was voted into doing, and that law is a federal law throughout the rest of the country. So, yes, she did violate the law there. Thank you.
First of all, props to Roberts for keeping her answer to a trim 10 seconds. Better to be terse and direct than to ramble on painfully about feeling footballs for the full 20.
However, those 10 seconds didn't actually answer the question. The question was about the nuanced understanding of the interplay of religious freedom and job requirements, not what the law says.
That's the neat thing about the Miss America pageant. In the moment during which America crowns its most representative woman (ha ha, no, I know, that's a joke), you must have an opinion on a thing. But once that opinion is offered? Hooray, you are done with opinions, whew, glad that's over! There should be an aftershow in which contestants sit down with, say, Charlie Rose, and expound more fully on their thoughts.
4. Miss Louisiana, April Nelson
Question from: Mathematician and former Winnie Cooper Danica McKellar
Nelson got a particularly tricky question.
The question: The Black Lives Matter movement grew as a reaction to unarmed African Americans being killed by police. Now there are voices raised who call it a hate group and think it should be called 'All Lives Matter.' What do you think?
I believe that black lives matter, all lives matter. It shouldn't matter what we base our labels on. Everybody matters. And I think that we can stop all of the violence with police brutality with body cameras and making sure that all of our policemen are trained and ready to go into the field. Every life matters!
If you were presented with the "Black Lives Matter" question, not being familiar with it at all, you might echo Nelson's comment. Sure, black lives matter. Everyone's life matters! This is the Martin O'Malley move. But, again, the response didn't involve a lot of nuance.
I mean, again, these women had about three seconds to formulate a response and 20 seconds to articulate it. This is not conducive to great nuance or thoughtfulness! But, still, three others did better.
3. Miss Colorado, Kelley Johnson
Question from: "Shark Tank" resident Mr. Wonderful, a.k.a. Kevin O'Leary
The question: The Treasury wants to put the face of a woman on the $10 bill, beside Alexander Hamilton (tepid applause). Which woman should get that honor, and you tell me why.
Thank you for that question. The person that I would put on the $10 dollar bill is Ellen DeGeneres. I think that woman is so amazing. [applause] Not only is she kind, not only is she intelligent, not only is her entire platform speaking tolerance and equality for all, and kindness — but she is able to be funny without insulting someone, and I think that is an incredible feat. Thank you.
I was walking down the street near my house a few months ago and passed by people discussing this very topic. This is an interesting thing to discuss, and it's a good question to ask!
What's more, Johnson's answer was fascinating. I haven't been tracking real-time opinion on the issue, but is there some subculture of DeGeneres enthusiasts that's backing her inclusion on the bill? This seems like a pretty out-of-the-box idea, and one for which Johnson makes a decent case, setting aside the long span of notable women in American history. And setting aside the fact that DeGeneres is alive, which for the purposes of the question is a deal-breaker.
It's also a very "Miss America" answer: Who should we recognize on our money? An entertainer!
2. Miss Alabama, Meg McGuffin
Question from: Taya Kyle, widow of "American Sniper" Chris Kyle (and whom the host called "Tara Kylie")
Now, this was a question.
The question: According to a poll released this week, Donald Trump is leading Republican candidates by 32 percent of the vote.* [big applause] Why do you think he's leading by such an overwhelming margin?
You might have noticed that I added in where there were breaks for applause. I did that in part because the Trump mention got a big hand — but the applause for McGuffin's response was crazy. She was basically shouting over the audience at one point.
I think Donald Trump is an entertainer. And I think he says what's on a lot of people's minds. [murmuring and applause] But I think that the Republican Party should be absolutely terrified of all the attention that he is taking [growing applause] from incredible candidates like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush who could absolutely do the job of president of the United States. If I were a Republican, I'd absolutely be terrified of that.
Honestly, the most interesting thing to me here is "if I were a Republican." It doesn't mean that McGuffin is not a Republican, necessarily, but it certainly implies that she isn't. And she's from Alabama! I get, too, that not everyone in Alabama is a Republican, but if you'd asked me to guess if a young white beauty queen from Alabama was a Republican, I probably would have erred on the side of "yes."
But that wasn't what was most interesting to the rest of America. McGuffin's home-state paper isolated the "terrified" line, yielding, as of writing, 366 comments. The most recent as of right this moment? "I disagree with anyone who thinks Christie would be a good president."
1. Miss Tennessee, Hannah Robison
Question from: Once-disgraced now-forgiven former Miss America Vanessa Williams
This one was set up to be a train wreck. As Williams asked the question, Robison, whose default facial expression appears to be I-am-a-deer-and-what-are-those-lights, looked like she might faint. But she did not faint.
The question: Take a breath. It's a tough one. Some legislators are threatening to shut down the government over federal contributions to Planned Parenthood, even though no federal funds can be used for abortions. Should Planned Parenthood funding be cut off?
I don't think Planned Parenthood funding should be cut off. The $500 million that gets given to Planned Parenthood every single year goes to female ... care. It goes to screening for cancer. It goes for mammograms. And if we don't give that funding to Planned Parenthood, those women will be out of health care for reproductive causes.
She had a data point. Asked a random question, out of the blue, Robison was able to summon the amount of funding Planned Parenthood receives each year and work it into an otherwise-coherent (if not entirely accurate) response on the topic. It was well done, the sort of performance that would slot in nicely on one of the political talk shows that aired earlier in the day Sunday. (That's not meant entirely as a compliment.)
(Williams, for her part, replied with her default facial expression, I-am-going-for-"impartiality"-but-giving-off-"burn-it-all-down.")
By rights, 20 percent of Robison's score should have been "infinity to the infinity power" and 20 percent of Miss Georgia's score should have been "negative zero." Despite that, Georgia went on to win.
Robison did not even get to be a runner-up.
* Allow me to be pedantic for a second. Well, more pedantic. Trump doesn't lead by 32 percent, he leads with 32 percent.