Beauty pageants are often associated with sexism and superficial showbiz. They are considered as silly competitions where bikini-clad women make starry-eyed appeals for world peace. At first glance, these contests might seem like something we should be attempting to rid ourselves of in this politically conscious #MeToo-era. However, recent changes in the nearly century-long traditions of competitions such as Miss America could indicate that the beauty pageant culture is getting ready to fully embrace a new age. An increasing number of beauty queens are actively choosing to use their platform to bring attention to concrete political issues. Thanks to social media, these messages are also getting more widespread than ever before.
During the Miss America 2019 competition early September this year, one contestant used her short self-introduction time to speak up about the water crisis in her home state, Michigan, instead of stating her credentials. “From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma,” she stated, referring to the ongoing Flint water crisis.The brief moment gained a lot of attention and praise on social media over the following few days. While she wasn’t crowned Miss America, Sioma’s introduction was something that got viewers’ interest and approval. This incident comes amidst the recent developments taking place within the Miss America organization. In late 2017, the Miss America CEO, Sam Haskell, got caught in an email scandal. Emails of him and other board members insulting former Miss America winners were leaked, resulting in Haskell’s and the board chairwoman Lynn Weidner’s resignations.
With the lead of the new chairwoman, Gretchen Carlson, – a former Fox News anchor and Miss America winner of 1989 – the organization is now undergoing a heavy makeover in attempt to leave the past controversies behind. When the Miss America pageant first took place in 1921, it was specifically launched as a swimsuit beauty competition, where all contestants had to be “of good health and of the white race.” In June 2018, Carlson introduced Miss America 2.0, a renewed competition that doesn’t include the famous swimsuit round anymore and promises inclusivity to women of all kinds. “We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. We want to be open, transparent, and inclusive to women who may not have felt comfortable participating in our programme before,” Carlson said on Good Morning America. “We’re interested in what makes you you.”
The goal of this transformation is to highlight the contestants’ talents and ambitions, rather than their looks. The contenders will now have more opportunities to speak about their achievements and social initiative ideas. Carlson stated that Miss America is ‘proud’ to be a part of the empowering new era. “We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues.” Miss America is one of the best-known beauty pageants out there, but it is not the only – nor the first – organization to be embracing the #MeToo -movement. During the Miss Peru contest in 2017, both the contestants and the organizers were involved in making space for political statements. Instead of following the tradition and giving out their body measurements, the beauty queens chose to quote statistics about violence against women in Peru.
“My name is Camila Canicoba and I represent the department of Lima. My measurements are: 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country.”
“My name is Samantha Batallanos, I represent Lima and my figures are: a girl dies every 10 minutes as a result of sexual exploitation.”
Powerful statements like these highlight the serious issue of gender-based violence, which is a major problem in Peru. The Q&A session of the competition also focused on women’s rights; the candidates were not asked the usual questions, but rather interviewed about what laws they would change in order to protect women from violence. Another recent milestone for beauty pageants was the coronation of Ángela Ponce as Miss Spain earlier this year. She will be the first transgender woman to ever compete in the international Miss Universe contest. Ponce is hoping to be a role model for trans children and is planning to use her Miss Universe platform to speak up about discrimination against transgender people. “If my going through all this contributes to the world moving a little step forward, then that’s a personal crown that will always accompany me,” she stated.
Ponce isn’t the first transgender candidate who has aimed for Miss Universe. In 2012, Jenna Talackova was banned from Canada’s national beauty pageant for not being a “naturally born female.” After she hired a lawyer and threatened the organization with a lawsuit, the rules of the competition were adjusted, and transgender participation was allowed. But it’s only now that a transgender contestant has made it all the way into Miss Universe.
During the 2012 lawsuit, Miss Universe was owned by Donald Trump. He was forced to sell the organization three years later, due to the aftermath of his racist comments about Mexicans. Since then he has also been accused of creepy and racist behaviour toward the contestants. While it might have been unwise to speak against him when he was heavily involved in the competitions, the candidates are now voicing their opinions about the current president. According to another Miss America 2019 contender, Madeline Collins, Mr Trump is “the biggest issue” facing the U.S. today. She stated that he has “caused a lot of divide in our country, and until we can trust in him and the choices that he makes for our country, we cannot become united.”
What follows next is uncertain, but developments like these indicate that the beauty pageant culture as a whole might be heading in a direction that will allow its survival in the social media heavy #MeToo era. The steps these competitions have recently taken represent the broader phenomenon that encourages women to speak up and share their stories, in the hope of reshaping the existing ideas of what it means to be a woman in 2018.