Miss America, talent, swimsuit, pageant, competition

“Miss America” Says They’re No Longer a Beauty Pageant, Eliminates the Swimsuit Segment

"We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance."
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Despite its mission statement as “the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education,” the Miss America competition has long had trouble convincing audiences that it’s the bastion of feminist empowerment it claims to be. It’s not just the requirement that women meet impractical standards of conventional beauty and present themselves in bikinis and stilettos for judgement. Behind the scenes, the pageant has displayed a blatant climate of misogyny and shaming.

Late last year, a number of emails were leaked that showed conversations between the pageant’s CEO Sam Haskell and others within the organization, insulting former winners’ bodies, slut-shaming them, referring to them with misogynistic slurs, and even conspiring to tank their businesses and deny them their livelihood.

After those emails were made public, the organization underwent some swift and sizeable changes. Haskell stepped down, obviously, as did Miss America’s president, chairwoman, and several board members. The board now has women in seven of its nine seats, including three former pageant winners.

But Miss America’s issues with sexism and shaming go back much farther than Haskell or this particular board. (Vanessa Williams could have told us that 30 years ago.) So how much could this shakeup change at a fundamental level? As it turns out, a lot. Former titleholder/Fox News anchor and new board chairwoman Gretchen Carlson announced today on Good Morning America that the organization is undergoing a total overhaul, starting with that damned swimsuit competition.

It’s not just the swimsuit segment that’s going. Carlson said that the competition–no longer a “pageant”–will, as a whole, no longer judge contestants based on their outward appearance. That’s a huge change for an organization that began nearly 100 years ago as a swimsuit pageant and even today is, by most, more known for its bikinis and evening gowns (which Carlson says they’re also revamping) than the scholarships they provide.

Contestants will now be able to wear “whatever they choose,” and the competition wants to be “open, transparent, inclusive to women who may not have felt comfortable participating in our program before.” Rather than heels, bikinis, and mandatory sequined gowns, the competition will focus on women’s talents, achievements, and goals. They’ll discuss advancing social-impact initiatives. “We’re interested in makes you you,” Carlson says.

As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled by this news. There are plenty of very angry men complaining online, promising to boycott a broadcast they likely didn’t even watch anyway. Carlson doesn’t seem concerned about ratings dropping, though. Apparently, the swimsuit portion isn’t even the most-watched part of the show. As it turns out, people like watching the talent portion better anyway. And she trusts that there will be more interest not just from new contestants, but also from sponsors looking to partner with the competition.

As for those men getting angry over not being able to openly judge women based on their appearance in this specific setting, they’ll just have to settle for … gestures vaguely at basically everything else on television, the internet, and life in general.

The caveat for this otherwise encouraging move is that it’s not clear yet if the changes will also apply to the smaller local and state pageants that feed into the Miss America competition. Hopefully, that will be the case, and that those competitions will embrace these changes. As Carlson describes, this is a necessary evolution:

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 proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement.

What do you think of these changes? Will you be watching the new Miss America competition in September?

(image: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.