Monday, September 16, 2013

Here she is, your Miss America

I know you all stayed up late last night following Miss America, watching the extended commentary on C-SPAN, and have already purchased the DVD, so this little blog entry may come as no surprise - but an Indian-American won the contest and lots of racists on Twitter said racist things.

Actually, Miss America is no longer a national event (thanks cable TV and the internet for ruining that too). I have no idea what its demographic is, but until a lot of racists started being racist out loud, almost none of my friends commented on the pageant. Rather, they were watching Breaking Bad. I tried watching the first episode of Breaking Bad, but a show about disability and cancer seemed a little too raw for me last October. Maybe I'll try again sometime. I was watching the Red Sox sweep the Yankees, followed by The Great Food Truck Race, in which a team from L.A. discovered there's no foot traffic in downtown St. Paul on a Sunday.

I remember watching Miss America as a kid, sometimes, mostly with my mother making sarcastic comments (go second-wave feminist mom!) and telling me about the important 1968 protests. I went to college with a Miss Mississippi, so watched the show during my Freshman year - she made the cut, got to sing a song about Ice Cream on TV (I think it was this song, sung here by Kristen Chenoweth), then didn't make the next cut. And that's about all I have to say about my personal experience watching Miss America.

And yet, I do think that the contest can operate as a kind of Rorschach test, with Twitter providing a lovely stream of reaction for us to ponder an old and vital question - who gets to be American? Who gets to decide?

According to this essay, we've seen a normalization of African-American beauty. The author, Elwood Watson, who co-edited There She Is Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant (Palgrave, 2004), notes that no African-American women competed until the 1970s, and writes:
While Vanessa Williams’ green eyes and light complexion, Suzette Charles’ biracial background, Debbye Turner’s, dark, yet Anglo defined features and Marjorie Vincent’s classic Black features were the subject of media attention, later winners did not face such intense scrutiny. In fact, by the time Kimberly Aiken captured the crown, very little was made of the race of these contestants. However, this did not mean that the pageant had moved totally beyond the issue of race.
From time to time the comments of some contestants in interviews made it clear that some of them believed that pageant judges were being “preferential to non-White contestants” or was becoming “politically correct.” Such comments demonstrate that despite the significant racial strides the pageant has made, that it is an issue that remains a controversial part of the pageant as it does in society at large.
 I was surprised to learn that there has never been a Latina Miss America.

What's interesting, if entirely predictable, about this contest is that Miss Kansas also represented a first: Tattoos. I read about her from this piece on CNN, an article filled with snark, winks at the reader, and sexism to my reading. It reads:
She could, maybe, be the first beauty pageant contestant to sport a tattoo, but determining that would necessitate reportage on the obscured derrieres and other regions of hundreds of past contestants.
So we'll just say Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, is the first beauty queen to prominently sport a large tattoo during a pageant.
But that's not the only thing that sets her apart from most bombshells. The Miss America contestant also hunts deer with a bow and is an M16 marskman (markswoman?) serving in the U.S. Army while double-majoring in Chinese and chemistry at Kansas State. Oh, and she's working on her private pilot's license.
"I'm all about breaking stereotypes," she said. "Everybody thinks of Miss America as this girl on a pedestal. I want her to come down from that. She is just a normal girl."
Her tattoos are of the serenity prayer and a military medical insignia, because she wants to have a career in dentistry. The piece quotes her as saying:
"If I were crowned Miss America, bearing my tattoos, do you realize the stereotypes and stigmas it would break?" she wrote. "Do you realize it would pave a path for a whole new audience to compete in the Miss America Organization?"
Funny she should mention breaking stereotypes, because for some of the racists, she became the symbol of the true American spurned by the false American. This is not her responsibility, but when FOX News host tweets:
The culture war is on.

As for me - I was interested in Miss Iowa, a woman born with only one whole arm.  She says:

She said one TV station surreptitiously shot close-ups of her partial arm without her realizing it and made that a central part of their report.
"I got a lot of unwanted attention, but there's also the flip side of this enormous platform" to bring attention to people with disabilities.
A hearing-impaired contestant won in 1995, but for a contest focused on physical beauty, the inclusion of Nicole Kelly pleases me I suppose.

In the end, the brief and soon-forgotten twitterstorm over Nina Davuluri will fade, just another milestone on the path to a changing, multi-racial, America and the challenges that presents to both those in the vanguard and those who feel under assault.

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