Miss Marigold on Miss America

February 1, 2010
By | 6 Comments

On Saturday night, 23 year-old Caressa Cameron became Miss America 2010, earning $50,000 in scholarship money, a really big crown, and an even bigger anachronistic title.

As a feminist, I have to admit that I am happy to see that the pageant itself is not the spectacle it used to be, pleased that it has moved from network TV to cable, glad that its audience has dwindled, satisfied that the lovely Miss A may no longer be our cultural ideal.  As a former small town beauty queen who demolished a 7-girl-long kick line with one false swing of my sequined Ked, however, I remain nostalgic for her relevance, entranced by her ability to strut to the music clad only in a black bikini and sparkly stiletto strappy sandals, stunned by her brand of feminine grotesque that is matched only by the leering, hyper masculinity of the pageant’s co-emcees.  That part of me, the part that relished the weight of the dime store tiara the reigning Miss Marigold slammed atop my own rigid coif, believed Saved by the Bell alum and pageant emcee A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez will always be A.C. Slater to me) when he assured viewers that the evening gown competition was more than a fashion show.  The evening gown competition, he intoned, was just another way for these accomplished young women to reveal their strengths.

And reveal they did– their breasts, their backs, the tops of their toned thighs, along with their ambitions.  During the talent competition, for example, eventual first-runner-up Miss California performed ballet while a pop-up box onscreen told at-home viewers that she dreamed of becoming a pediatric heart surgeon.  This was one of many incongruous moments of the night.  Others included last year’s queen in a camouflage evening gown; home video images of the contestants as round, beribboned girls introducing each shellacked, disciplined woman’s 90-second talent spot; cleavage baring, swimsuit wearing women blowing tearful kisses to their shiny-eyed daddies; the Miss America organization offering the largest amount of scholarship money to women while asking them to hula dance across the stage to earn it.

In her book The Most Beautiful Girl in the World Sarah Banet-Weiser contends that the Miss America pageant performs important cultural work, linking up notions of ideal womanhood to rhetorics of nationalism and citizenship.  Miss America becomes a particular kind of universal citizen, one defined by gender, femininity, and her  status as a single woman, publicly chaperoned through the brief twilight between her tenure in her parents’ house and her eventual arrival at Mrs. America-dom.  Indeed, Slater’s Lopez’s discussion of outgoing Miss A Katie Stam’s year of accomplishments culminated in his announcement of her recent engagement.  Stam flashed a right-hand sparkler at the crowd and flung her arms over head, a triumphant victory for pronatalism and compulsory heterosexuality.

Banet-Weiser points out that contestants not only engage in self-surveillance, they also turn a judgmental eye on each other.  The 2010 pageant dramatized both of these gazes.  Not only did MTV confessional-style videos of the contestants detailing their fears of wardrobe malfunctions and critiquing their own beauty and personality quirks accompany their walks down the aisle, but the women (always called girls by pageant emcees) were invited to sit onstage in open judgment of the finalists, and their own votes– in a Survivor-style twist– chose the 15th semifinalist.

For me, devouring the spectacle from the solace of my sofa,  contestants used these moments of judgment to confront and return the audience’s gaze, resisting hegemonic simplifications of themselves even as they fashioned their own images for consumption.  But that could be the old beauty queen in me borrowing the feminist’s vocabulary.  As the new Miss A took her first wobbling walk as queen, crushing the heck out of her lavish roses, I wondered has the Miss America pageant overstayed its cultural welcome?


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6 Responses to “ Miss Marigold on Miss America ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on February 1, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    Great analysis, Sarah. You raise an excellent question. What struck me about this year’s last four finalists was that they all appeared to be “ethnically ambiguous.” I’m reminded of Mary Beltran’s current work on celebrity and claims of “post-racial” America — Given the recent rhetoric of America as “post-racial,” especially in the wake of Obama’s election (which, we were informed via pop-up box, that Caressa Cameron in fact performed at the inaugural celebrations), and other such discourses, I would argue that Miss America still performs the important cultural work Banet-Weiser identifies. While Cameron isn’t the first light-skinned African-American Miss America (Vanessa Williams, anyone?), I think crowning her at this particular historical moment carries significant meaning, perhaps of our desire to see a “post-racial” America (despite the fact that in the material reality for many people, we are far from it).

  2. Erin Copple Smith on February 1, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    Awesome post, Sarah! So much food for thought!

    Pageants seem to have such a strange status within American culture anymore–they’re obviously wildly popular among a segment of America, but the rest regards them with a strange mix of skepticism, cynicism, derision and even fear. Think of shows like Toddlers & Tiaras. Ads for that show come on and so many of us experience a simultaneous shudder, as we recall Jon Benet Ramsey (yes, still) and news stories about pageant tots getting plastic surgery, hair extensions, teeth whitening, etc. ad nauseam (literally). There’s also the Miss USA contest, which has been tarnished in recent years by scandal and Donald Trump, yet remains on network TV because of Trump’s backing.

    And then there’s Miss America, bravely soldiering on despite its exile to cable, trying to keep pageants “wholesome” by claiming that the swimsuit portion is about health and fitness, not scantily clad supermodel-esque women displaying their bodies as objects of desire. (And, my personal favorite, such excellent talent show pop-up information as “Secretly wants to open a cupcake shop.” What is more wholesome than cupcakes? Also: not so secret anymore, huh?)

    All of which is to say…yes, the pageant seems anachronistic. And it certainly invites two types of viewers: those who watch, eyes gleaming, for the majesty and brilliance of it all, with the hopes that their toddlers might one day be Miss America, and those who watch to mock, operate as fashion and talent critics, and perform feminist analyses. (I’ll let you guess which camp I fall into.) And yet I don’t know that it’s going anywhere (other than the basic cable home it now claims), because its duality almost seems to secure its place as a cultural touchstone. Someplace we return to once (or so) a year, to remind ourselves that either (a) America is still the home of the wholesome and lovely, or (b) America is still really sad and freaky and behind-the-times.

    Wow. I had more to say about this than I would ever have guessed.

  3. Kelli Marshall on February 1, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    Just read your blog post. Nice! If you haven’t seen it, you might find ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s article “Who Killed Miss America” right in line with what you say early on about the pageant’s falling ratings: http://popwatch.ew.com/2010/01/30/miss-america-2010/

    PS. If you’re interested, I also just published a blog post on this year’s pageant, specifically about Rush Limbaugh’s turn as a host. =) http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/television/miss-america/

  4. Melissa Click on February 1, 2010 at 1:47 PM


    This is a powerful piece on a topic that’s easy to ignore–I think you (and the commenters above me) have demonstrated that the pageant HAS overstayed its cultural welcome–it probably did about 25 years ago! I haven’t watched the pageant in years, but am frustrated to know it hasn’t really changed at all. It would be interesting to know the demographics of the audience and to learn why people watch it and what sense they make of it. It’s a great project in the making!

    • Sarah Jedd on February 1, 2010 at 2:01 PM

      Melissa, I think that would be a fascinating project, and I wonder if like the famous “Women read the Romance” article Miss A viewers are performing resistive readings or reading against the grain at all.

      I wonder how many people, Erin, fall into the second camp (or are a hybrid of the two kinds of viewers you mention, like I am). Banet-Weiser’s book agrees with your discussion of “wholesomeness.” Another thing that sets Miss A apart from Miss USA contestants is her ideal averageness. She’s not the hottest or the sexiest, but she is the most like the (starving, surgically enhanced) girl next door.

      Lindsay, you’re exactly right– Banet-Weiser’s thesis is also about race and nation-building and Western, Epcot-center depictions of race in pageants, and I agree with you that Cameron is the “right” Miss A for this particular moment. If, that is, Miss A is at all right for us anymore.

      Kelli, thanks for the link to the article and to your post– can’t wait to check them both out!

  5. Amy Tully on February 2, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    I didn’t watch the pageant itself, but I found myself inexplicably watching the “behind the scenes” show hosted by Clinton Kelly the night before the pageant. I was really struck by how blunt he was about the women’s bodies being on display, sometimes to the discomfort of the pageant officials participating in the pre-show. In one segment, for example, he talked about how he likes to watch to see “which boobs jiggle and which ones don’t” when the contestants walk down the stairs in swimsuits, implicitly, calling out the surgical enhancement that goes into attaining the wholesome Miss America ideal.

    I think his commentary was premised on TLC casting him as “one of the girls” throughout the show – a position which seemed available to him only because he is openly gay. In the aforementioned segment, he was talking to a former Miss America winner in (who had quite a few comments of her own about the contestants’ bodies) and it seemed to be framed as the type of backstage gossip that the contestants themselves might engage in. He also gathered “backstage secrets” in the women’s dressing room and was privy to a lot of spaces and conversations that would have traditionally been open only to women.

    Anyway, I found the whole spectacle fascinating. I wish I had something brilliant to say about it, but I am still processing it (and wishing I had watched the entire behind-the-scenes show instead of changing the channel). But perhaps some of you all have more thoughts on it…