Miss America turns 100 and an important question is still unanswered: is it still relevant?
The swanky competition, born out of an Atlantic City beauty pageant in 1921, just a year after women won the right to vote, maintains a complicated presence in American culture, which has been through multiple waves of feminism.
Participation and viewership have declined since its heyday in the 1960s. When the next Miss America is crowned on Thursday, the event will only be streamed on NBC’s Peacock service, not primetime on broadcast TV. like it used to.
Faithful Miss America organizers and enthusiasts maintain that the annual ritual is here to stay and will continue to change with the times. And while they may not have come up with a plan for world peace, many participants say the organization, a great provider of scholarship assistance for young women, has changed their lives and opened doors for them both professionally and personally. . Others should have the same opportunities, they say.
“I think people have the wrong idea about what Miss America is because it’s not just about dressing up and being classy and appropriate and being perfect on stage,” said Miss America 2004, Ericka Dunlap, who graduated from LA Debt-free college, founded a public relations firm, and became a television personality.
Miss America fans often cheer on their state contender like they would a local sports team. However, some have expressed disappointment at the competition’s attempts to adapt to contemporary customs.
“It’s kind of a bind because as you try to progress, you not only lose your original identity, but you become less entertaining for the people who like to see you,” said Margot Mifflin, author of “Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100 – Year Quest to Define Womanhood ”.
Fans, he said, are divided over the trajectory of the competition, which is no longer a “contest.” Some want it to be about “beauty and fitness,” while others take the initiative to focus on leadership, talent and communication skills, he said.
Meanwhile, the competition is still shrouded in calls for greater diversity.
In the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, “rule number seven” said that contestants must be “in good health and white.”
In 1968 the Miss Black America pageant was held, organized to rebel against the lack of diversity, as well as a protest by several hundred women organized by the feminist group New York Radical Women, which called Miss America “an image that oppresses women. women in all the areas in which it intends to represent us ”.
It was not until 1984 that the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned, and she resigned the crown amid scandal over some photos in which she appeared nude, receiving an apology from the organization only in 2015. At least 11 women from minorities have won the title overall.
Miss America President and CEO Shantel Krebs, a former South Dakota Secretary of State who does not receive a salary, maintains that Miss America is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
He said the event has been “at the center of social problems” for the past 100 years, noting that the winners have taken up causes including raising awareness about HIV / AIDS and the scourge of opioid abuse. And she notes that the modernization of competition has happened “far behind the broader culture in terms of the advancement of women.”
It was only in 2018 that the physical appearance assessment was removed, with the help of former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, who ended up having to resign as chair of the board of directors.
Carlson was part of a female leadership team that took over after an email scandal in which male leaders insulted former Miss America, denigrating their looks, intelligence and even their sex lives. While some welcomed the changes as a way to make the event more relevant, many state organizations rebelled against the new leadership team.
“I say in the book that she has always been in dialogue with feminism, but behind feminism,” Mifflin said of the Miss America competition. “So it always seems like he’s trying to catch up.”
Dunlap, the seventh black Miss America, believes that competition, which she has no problem calling a contest, must become more diverse to remain relevant. He noted, for example, that there have been no winners of Hispanic origin.
She said more needs to be done to help young women of color get involved locally, such as helping them cover the high costs of participation, including developing their talents and buying dresses, so that they can have access to the same opportunities to change their lives.
This year, the nonprofit, led by a passionate group of volunteers at the national, state and local levels, announced that the top scholarship awarded at the final on December 16 will double to $ 100,000. The change was made possible by a donation from Miss America 1996, Shawntel Smith Wuerch, and her husband Ryan Wuerch. According to the organization, a total of $ 435,500 in scholarships will be distributed in this year’s competition, while more than $ 5 million are awarded annually through national, state and local programs.
Dunlap hopes that instead of looking for an attractive girl who can generate views on her social networks, Miss America will focus on promoting “longevity of the organization” for years to come. Krebs says organizers are doing just that, noting that the number of annual participants increased from roughly 5,000 to 6,500 after the 2018 changes.
“I feel like there are mixed messages about whether or not you can be beautiful and attractive and at the same time be smart. That to me is silly, ”Dunlap said. “It’s like women can only do one thing, so choose one side. And that is not true”.
It’s unclear whether the decision to move the competition online says more about the fate of broadcast television than it does about Miss America. NBCUniversal Media has been optimistic about its streaming service, with Krebs insisting that the move to the platform was an organization decision and had nothing to do with viewership ratings.
In 2019, the Miss America final on NBC drew 3.6 million viewers, a record low. In contrast, the 1954 competition attracted 27 million viewers when the supply of content was much lower and therefore the competition.
“If we say that we want to be here for the next 100 years, we absolutely have a desire to stream the competition because that’s where our future lies,” Krebs said, noting that younger people are less likely – and to take in. Mind you, Miss America contestants must be between the ages of 17 and 25 – have access to broadcast TV.
Some fear that moving to the internet could spell the downfall of what is often called “the first reality show,” which began airing live in 1954.
“We have witnessed the demise of a historic event that helped shape the lives of Americans,” proclaimed a fan on Facebook. Another agreed with Krebs, predicting that “the audience we can reach is bigger than ever now!”
Another fan, still upset that the event is no longer in Atlantic City – moved to a Connecticut casino in 2019 – wrote: “Unfortunately, after 100 years, it seems to have run its course.”