Miss America pageant does not exploit women

2021 marked the centennial anniversary of the Miss America pageant. Perhaps it was only fitting that Emma Broyles, a 21-year-old college student from Anchorage, became both the first contestant from Alaska and the first Korean American to win.

Broyles is a junior at Arizona State University where she is studying biomedical sciences and voice performance. In addition to the Miss America crown, she is the recipient of a $100,000 scholarship and a six-figure salary during her reign.

Like any prominent vehicle in popular culture, the Miss America pageant has not been immune from criticism. It is an event that has been labeled as “sexist,” “retrograde,” “homophobic,” “kitschy,” “antiquated,” “elitist” and “draconian,” along with far more colorful terms that I cannot print.

During its 100 years of existence, the pageant has managed to overcome many crises, including years of inactivity from 1929-32, another cancellation in 1934, the Great Depression, World War II, charges of racism and sexism from feminist and civil rights groups in the 1960s and ’70s, a gradual erosion in ratings, the Vanessa Williams /Penthouse magazine scandal in 1984 and periodic abandonment by mainstream network television.

While few people would make the claim that all pageants are positive vehicles for women to showcase their talents and skills, it would be hard to make the case that Miss America is a negative representation for young women.

Unlike many pageants, including its biggest rival, Miss USA, Miss America is holistic in its composition. Contestants participate in an intense interview session, are enrolled in college or are college graduates, and are required to have a personal platform that contestants advocate for during their year of service and beyond.

It is also important to note that contestants are of adult age and no one is forcing these women to enter.

We seem to impose a double standard, or should I say a paternalistic standard, on young women. If young men express their desire to participate in competitive or even potentially dangerous sports or other activities, we as a society have no qualms in encouraging them to “go for it.” After all, men should be assertive, aggressive and confident, right?

On the contrary, if a young lady decides to compete in a pageant, there are naysayers who will do or say everything they can to discourage her, attempt to persuade her that she is being exploited, and that it could or will be psychologically and emotionally harmful to her self-esteem.

There is no doubt that many of the same critics who decried the swimsuit portion of the pageant when it existed (it was eliminated in 2018) had no problem tuning in to watch the Victoria Secret specials where models wear fashion attire far more modest than anything displayed in the pageant. These same individuals likely have no problem critiquing the bodies of young women (or men, for that matter), in magazines, on the internet or in other venues. Such blatant hypocrisy leaves much to be desired.

Many Miss America pageant winners have gone on to be successful in their chosen fields, ranging from practicing law, writing, consulting, public speaking, media and entertainment, to name a few. Recognizable winners include late Phyllis George, Williams, Rebecca King and Heather Renee French. The same holds true for many non-winners.

To be sure, there are millions of women who have enjoyed successful careers without entering a pageant, However, that was the decision they decided to make. The same reality holds true for the women who enter the Miss America pageant. They have made the choice to do so. More importantly, that choice is theirs, not yours or mine.

While there are many examples where one can point to women being exploited by society, the Miss America pageant is not one of them.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University.