Are Beauty Pageants about an Ideal or Diversity?: Thoughts on three recent pageant programs

I'm pretty sure I've seen almost every documentary, movie, or TV series about beauty pageants (well, at least those that appear in the English language). Want evidence? Click here. In the past week I've seen three new documentaries/TV specials that raise some interesting questions about whether beauty pageants are about an ideal ("There she is, your ideal...") or if they might actually be about diversity.

1) Miss You Can Do It-  Without a doubt one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent memory, particularly about children's activities (it's up there with Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom for me right now!). I would love this even if it wasn't about pageants, and full disclosure I cried during almost all of its 74 minutes. The subject is an annual pageant held in Illinois started by Abbey Curran, who was Miss Iowa USA 2008. Curran also happens to have cerebral palsy and she was the first woman with a disability to compete in the Miss USA system (note that Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995, was the first winner with a disability [hearing loss] and this year Miss Iowa America 2013 Nichole Kelly is missing part of her left arm-- so the Miss America Program is no stranger to championing contestants with disabilities). Curran believed she needed to share her gifts and dreams with others, which led her to start the Miss You Can Do It Pageant ten years ago. When the pageant is held later this month, fifty young girls will compete for the title-- but everyone will leave with a prize. As the documentary shows, every girl gets her hair and make-up done and gets the chance to feel special for the whole weekend, and while on stage. To see the transformation among these young people, and the positive impact it has on their families, is truly something. I can imagine this program turning into something like the Special Olympics, which focuses on sports for those with special needs. Thumbs up to both Miss You Can Do Its-- the pageant and the documentary about it!

2) There She Is- This short documentary (less than 20 minutes and viewable in its entirety via the link provided) is another interesting contribution to pageant documentaries and makes you think about how we define beauty-- particularly relevant this week in light of the Dustin Hoffman Tootsie clip that's been making its way around the Internet. It focuses on two women competing in a plus-sized beauty pageant. In this case I actually wanted to know more about both women and the pageants themselves (Is there a minimum size or weight requirement? Does anyone try to get around this? Does it help to be bigger or smaller? What are the age limits for these events? How many of these women did more traditional pageants before?). I loved that the filmmakers followed up a year later, but I still had questions (Were the two women still friends? Do they recommend that other women like them do pageants? Do they think there should be plus-sized pageants for kids?). The short film raises more questions that it answers-- particularly when one of the women talks about never going to the grocery store in sweats because she doesn't want strangers to think she's a slob-- but it's a good start.

3) Crown Chasers- Sadly, this show is getting the most press, even though it's the least worthwhile contribution here. It's on TLC and the show is basically a grown up version of Toddlers & Tiaras. Five women are featured (ranging in age from 30 to 52) as they compete in a Mrs. beauty pageant in Colorado. The women, predictably, behave poorly, fighting and swearing. One woman can barely go three sentences without breaking down into tears about menopause. They're catty and not very fun, but this special was clearly a test run for a possible future series. I hope it doesn't happen (note that I participated in a HuffPost Live segment with two of the crown chasers, around 14:45, and the women seem far more likeable in this format). While they emphasize that pageants give them a chance to retain some non-mom identities, as a new mom I know there are better ways than this to do so...

So between pageants for those with disabilities, those who are overweight, and those who are older, it seems as if pageantry isn't just about a blonde, thin ideal. Actually this shouldn't be tremendously surprising given that prisons often hold pageants for inmates and there has even been a Miss Holocaust pageant recently. And, let's face it, the child beauty pageant contestant who is currently most well-known is Alana Thompson of Honey Boo Boo fame, and she doesn't exactly conform to the norm of what a child beauty pageant contestant looks like either...

Increasingly we will see more diverse types of contestants, and contests. Case in point: This week in South Carolina Analouisa Valencia is one of 103(!) women vying for the title of Miss South Carolina, and ultimately Miss America 2014. Valencia stands out for two reasons: 1) She is openly gay, and 2) She is bilingual. Miss America has never had a national or state winner who was either.

Analouisa Valencia

So as the "ideal" changes, so do those who aspire for recognition in small and larger ways. I for one think this is a good thing!

The High Holy Week of Pageantry: Miss America 2013, No There She Is

If you follow me on Twitter and/or Facebook you know that I was scratching my head when Mallory Hagan was announced the winner of the 2013 Miss America Pageant. I felt that I knew so little about her that after she was crowned I actually had to look up her platform in the program book (turns out it is about preventing childhood abuse). Yes, I was surprised too (especially with Miss SC next to you).

[By the way, doesn't Alli Rogers look like Kristen Haguland here?!]

Hagan was not on my list of frontrunners, nor on that of most pageant aficionados (and Vegas odds makers didn't predict that she would do well either). Overall though I did pretty well in predicting who would go deep-- including SC (who I didn't think would win, but who I thought would go far-- suspicions confirmed by her performance on stage Saturday night), OK, MD, and TX.

I'm guessing this was a case of the Pageant being won in the interview room, as NY placed high after swimsuit and evening gown, as revealed by one of the co-hosts; while she wasn't a standout to me, she obviously was to the judges. Based on the 20/20 Pageant Confidential special that aired before the live show, it appears that the MAO and producers had favorites as well... And Miss NY was one of them.  All of the Top 3 (NY, SC, and WY) were featured in the news special. It's worth mentioning that the most media-hyped contestants-- Miss DC Allyn Rose (breast cancer story) and Miss MT Alexis Wineman (autism) didn't do well. Wineman was voted in as America's Choice, but the judges quickly dismissed her, and Rose didn't even make the Top 16. Previously backstory-hyped contestants like Kayla Martell (alopecia), Bree Boyce (weight loss), and Heather Whitestone (deaf) went much further or even won in previous years.

While I really enjoyed the Pageant overall and thought it was a strong group of interesting contestants (and others, even non-pageant fans, obviously agree), I was confused by the winner. The talent competition basically summed up my feelings on this year's event- some were outstanding (like OK) and others were cringeworthy (I'm looking at you IN). The extremes were there, along with some enjoyment (the bad was so bad it was good).

I'm not surprised that among the 13,000 girls the Miss America Program attracted in the past year that many of them were smart, talented, and interesting. I think the pendulum is swinging back in support of Miss America due to the synergy between glitz and entertainment and scholarship money. I don't think this is a Honey Boo Boo effect, but I do feel that there is a greater acceptance of women being smart, educated, fit, talented, and beautiful and Miss America is framing itself for that market.

I wrote about some of those women earlier this year for Slate and The Hill in three pieces on former Miss America contestants running for political office. The first of these pieces appeared in June and the other two in October and November. I was happy for the program and the women featured that Marie Claire printed a story on the same topic in this month's issue-- but very disappointed for myself that this recent piece is essentially a mash-up of my three previous articles on the subject. It's not available online, but you can see that this national magazine article is getting mentioned more than my earlier articles. Now I know how Miss World feels, ha!

In any case, given all the publicity it makes sense that this year's television show earned its highest ratings in nearly a decade. Of course we've gotten some controversy already as well: 1) Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap is accusing Pageant organizers of racism after she was asked to move seats at the live show in Las Vegas, 2) A smart NYT op-ed reminds us that Miss America does indeed have a complicated racial past, 3) Some have mixed feelings about Alabama native Hagan winning as Miss NY, 4) Miss Iowa Mariah Cary (yes, really) invited a bit of media ribbing after awkwardly/awesomely responding to her OSQ ("on-stage question" in pageant lingo) that she only supports recreational and medical use of marijuana; Cary was another contestant with an interesting backstory (Tourette's), so I do wonder if that played into this at all, and 5) Many, including former queens, found it in poor taste that the hosts said several times that the contestants had not been eating and they then gave the ousted contestants doughnuts on stage so they could binge. Not exactly the message they want to be sending out. But at least the in SUPER POOR TASTE contestants' choice of the 16th member of the Top 16 disappeared, and the judges' choice was nice in a way (still hate the hurry-up-and-get-ready-in-front-of-everyone way they handle talent, but I guess it's here to stay now).

But any year you get multiple mentions in The New York Times, appear on TMZ, and get high TV ratings means it was a pretty good year for Miss America. And, who knows, perhaps we'll see a reigning Miss America competing on Dancing with the Stars soon?

So, here she is. Again. (Even if they didn't play a good version of "There She Is" during Hagan's coronation walk!)

Miss America 2013