In the aftermath of an exposé of sexism at the highest levels of the beauty-pageant organization—a real shocker, that one—Miss America is in the midst of a feminist rebranding, even though the most feminist thing it could do at this point is pull contestants aside and let them know that there are ways of getting scholarships that don’t require you to bleach your teeth. With its contract with ABC set to expire this year, new Miss America chair Gretchen Carlson, previously of Fox News fame, has announced in a desperate plea for relevance that Miss America is “no longer a pageant” and that the 51 young women who gather on the Miss America stage each September like supplicants before the altar of hairspray and prom dresses will no longer be judged based on “outward physical appearance.”
As a result, the pageant will be getting rid of its swimsuit competition portion—the original event at the inaugural Miss America in 1921, described as a “bathing beauty competition”—and replacing it with an interactive portion where each candidate will be interviewed by judges about their “achievements and goals in life, and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America.” The evening-wear competition is also being changed to allow contestants to pick their own “evening” outfits, which basically means that spangled separates will now be allowed alongside spangled floor-length gowns.
Again, the most forward-thinking thing Miss America could do at this point is to just hand out scholarships without parading applicants around on national television, where they’ll continue to be exposed to the soft coercion of societal beauty standards, not to mention the stringent beauty standards of the established pageant subculture. In other words, just because rules are unspoken doesn’t mean they can’t be enforced, and it’s not as if eliminating the swimsuit competition means that Gretchen Carlson et al will be cool with candidates taking the stage in jeans and T-shirts all of a sudden. There’s nothing wrong with having fun with fashion and beauty on your own terms—whether you’re a Miss America, a Mr. America, or a proud member of Gender-Nonconforming America—but bikinis or no bikinis, this particular game remains rigged.