Miss America 2019: Is The Pageant Still Relevant Today?

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Controversy and drama continue to swirl around the Miss America pageant.

The entire premise of a beauty pageant wherein women are lined up cattle-call-style and pitted against one another seems rather counterintuitive in the age of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But as we have seen time and again, controversy can be a very good thing when you’re vying for ratings, or attention of any kind.

In the case of the Miss America pageant, the attention surrounding this Sunday’s show has been plentiful. It began with the June announcement on Good Morning America that the women competing will no longer be doing so based on their physical appearances. This is what the organization claims, at least.

The organization announced in June that it had scrapped its swimsuit competition and revamped its image. “We are no longer a pageant,” former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson said at the time. Carlson, the first former Miss America to be named chair of the Board of Trustees of the Miss America Organization, went on to say, “We are a competition.”

The elimination of the bikinis might be considered a good thing, but is the term “competition” an improvement on the term “pageant”? Rebranded as Miss America 2.0, the pageant-slash-competition is stepping into the 21st century with what many hope is an entirely new look and feel as it attempts to modernize itself moving forward.

It will be very interesting to see how many tune in when the Miss America competition airs this Sunday on ABC, as it will be the first time in the organization’s 98-year history that the women strutting the stage won’t be doing so clad in revealing bikinis and high heels. In addition, the evening gown segment has been revamped; the contestants can wear whatever they feel confident in and whatever best fits their personal style.

The fact that the organization claims the women will no longer be judged on their physical appearances, with the focus now instead on who they are beneath the makeup, hair and sexy clothing, is an improvement. The women will be judged on their social impact initiatives, and female empowerment will take center stage. And instead of competing in barely-there bikinis, they will be judged with a “live interactive session,” a move that seems to be a carefully choreographed step in the right direction.

Still, the question remains: Is such a “competition” relevant in a day and age when women are finally gaining equal footing and having their voices heard? It seems counterintuitive to pit women against one another in a competition of any kind, especially one once famously based on appearance as the main factor of “winning.”

It is, however, admirable that the organization has vowed to make necessary changes moving forward in an effort to improve both its message and its impact on the women competing against one another. Such changes began with the removal of the old leadership, including the 2017 ousting of former CEO Sam Haskell and other executives after body-shaming emails of former winners surfaced. Within months, the organization appointed women to the top positions. At the helm joining Carlson are Regina Hopper, Miss Arkansas 1983 and a CBS News correspondent, and Marjorie Vincent-Tripp, Miss America 1991 and an assistant attorney general in Florida, as chief executive/president and chairwoman, respectively. There is also a predominantly female board of trustees. These women understand the role the winner will play, as many are former Miss Americas themselves.

The goal under the new regime is to modernize the competition and reform Miss America into a platform for building women up. Carlson, who famously sued former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in 2016 for sexual harassment, has been credited with helping start the movements of the last few years. Her lawsuit unleashed a torrent of suits that led to the downfalls of a plethora of high-powered men like Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.

Despite her efforts for women, there have been claims made against Carlson, and Hopper, by winner Cara Mund that she’s doing the opposite of empowering women. Mund said she felt she had been “systematically silenced, reduced and marginalized” once she had won. Carlson vehemently denied these claims. In the midst of the scandal, representatives from 22 state pageants called for the resignations of Carlson and Hopper.

Back to the question: Does America need such competitions, or pageants, in the first place, and are they relevant? Though we’ve seemingly gone far beyond the interest in surface-based beauty, and instead opt for what a woman truly stands for, there are still opportunities for women that arise out of such competitions.

As to Miss America’s relevancy, the viewers will decide this for themselves. Viewership has seen a steep decline in recent years, but there’s also been a significant drop in those vying for the title. In 1970, an approximate 70,000 women competed in local, state and national Miss America pageants, and as of 2017, that number dropped to less than 4,000. 

Miss America, once considered must-see TV, has seen a steady decline over the decades. When it first aired in 1954, approximately 27 million tuned in. It’s important to note that, at the time, not every household had a television. In the 1960s, three out of every four households, about 60 million people, tuned in.

By 1984, that number had significantly dropped, to roughly 28.2 million viewers. In 2007, ratings took a nosedive when the show was exiled to cable TV and aired on CMT, drawing only 2.4 million viewers.

After its return to ABC in 2011, and before its return to Atlantic City in 2013, ratings increased. In 2015, about 7 million watched.

Otherwise, ratings have steadily decreased, from 8.6 million viewers in 2013 to 7.1 million viewers in 2014. In 2017, only 5.6 million viewers tuned in, which was a decrease from 6.2 million in 2016, and ratings dropped 13% from 2015 to 2016.

As Carlson has said in interviews on the subject, Miss America will represent a new generation and is now open, inclusive and transparent. Her wish, she has said, is to move forward and evolve, empower and inspire all women, to celebrate their accomplishments and to give out scholarships. She wants to focus on the female leaders of tomorrow and their social impact and talents. She also hopes the revamped version of the competition will resonate more with young people. The organization’s new motto is: “A leap into the future. In step with the past.” At this point, it seems like Sunday’s broadcast will tell if her vision will come to be.

The 2019 Miss America Competition will air on ABC on Sunday, September 9, at 9 p.m. ET.

I have worked for several years as a freelance journalist covering breaking news with Reuters and entertainment-related stories with Variety. I am excited to now be a regular Contributor with Forbes covering film, television and music. I look forward to learning, and writing…

 

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