Will Miss America survive in our changing culture?

Grace Stanke, a 23-year-old nuclear engineering student from Wausau, Wisc., recently was crowned Miss America 2023.

Stanke is a beautiful, blond woman gifted in math and science. She was crowned by her predecessor, Emma Broyles, Miss Alaska, who became the first woman from her state to win the title. But don’t be surprised if you missed it — for the second straight year, the pageant was streamed online and didn’t air on TV.

A scandal in 2017 involving leaked emails in which top members of the Miss America Organization traded misogynistic barbs about contestants. Miss America 2018, Cara Mund decrying the treatment she allegedly received from pageant organizers, most notably, then CEO and Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson.

The scandals certainly didn’t endear a pleasant perception of the pageant to those who may have been on the fence, and the majority of former major sponsors have withdrawn their financial support.

Criticism has come from all sides. Left-leaning critics see the pageant as too resistant to change, while those on the right accuse organizers of attempting to abandon its traditionally conservative principles and rituals in an effort to appease liberals and progressives. The contest is caught in the middle of an ideological tug of war.

Since its inception in 1921, race has been a mainstay of the Miss America Pageant.

In September 1945, a few months after the end of World War II, Bess Myerson, Miss New York, became the first — and is still currently — the only Jewish woman to wear the Miss America crown. Not surprisingly, there were some critics of Meyerson’s victory who claimed that postwar sympathies were a major factor in her winning the title.

Unlike her predecessors and successors, who were heavily booked and financially well compensated as they traveled across the nation, none of the pageant’s sponsors were willing to have their products associated with or advertised by a Jewish woman. Thus, Meyerson was absent from any pageant duties. She later stated: “I couldn’t even stay in certain hotels … There would be signs that read, ‘No coloreds, no Jews, no dogs.’ I felt so rejected. Here I was chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.”

Instead, Meyerson worked with the Anti-Defamation League, who convinced her to go on a national speaking tour addressing high school students about the dangers of hatred.

Antisemitism is hardly the only issue that has plagued the pageant. It took until 1970 for a Black contestant, Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa, to compete in the national pageant. More than a decade later, when Vanessa Williams was selected as Miss America 1984, she was subjected to virulent levels of hostility, including death threats.

The specter of nativism reared its sinister head when Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, became the first Indian American woman to capture the crown. Almost immediately, Davuluri faced an onslaught of xenophobia and racism from bigoted detractors on social media.

To its credit, the Miss America pageant has made significant strides in overcoming its anti-WASP image, with a number of non-White winners over the years. In 2016, Erin O’Flaherty Miss Missouri, became the first openly gay contestant.

Only time will tell whether the Miss America pageant will manage to survive amid today’s culture wars.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies.