The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Florida's own Erika Dunlap won the 82nd Miss America pageant last night. She's from Orlando and goes to UCF, both just 90 minutes due east of me.

Am I the only one who thinks, who cares?

I swear, I was completely unaware that the Miss America contest was going on this weekend. I heard or read absolutely nothing about it all week. I may not be completely plugged in on every single media and cultural event that takes place on any given week, but I am enough of a news junkie that I'm aware of relevant, broadly popular spectacles. This pageant used to be in that category; I think its invisibility this year speaks volumes about how far it's fallen from that place.

The 82-year-old beauty pageant, which saw its heyday as an American cultural icon in the 1950s, has struggled to remain relevant in recent decades amid changing social tastes and gender roles.

Television viewership has also slipped, reaching an all-time low of 12 million viewers last year.

How much you want to bet the viewer numbers sink even lower this year? I can't be the only one who didn't notice the ABC telecast. I say they'll be lucky to get 10 million. We may be seeing the last couple of years of this relic being broadcast on network television.

I think the years of assault that the Miss America concept has endured has finally taken its toll. And really, the ridicule has been well-deserved. What does it mean to be Miss America these days, anyway? Does the title really represent anything other than superficiality, only lately having more substantive qualifications grafted onto the crown? It's like, she's pretty and wholesome, AND she's smart enough to be a doctor too! It's trying to be too many things at once, and ends up meaning nothing.

Part of it is also the spread of other pageants that, while ostensibly not in competition with Miss Amerca, do siphon off attention and deliver more of what the old contest doesn't. Miss Universe, Miss USA, Mrs. America, Miss Hawaiian Tropic... To me, and others in my generation and younger, these all mean about as much as the Miss America title. What's more, you know that Miss Universe and Miss Hawaiian Tropic offer a lot more skin and better bodies; since that's what a beauty contest is all about ultimately, that's all you need (if you ever feel compelled to pay attention to these things in the first place).

Being Miss America meant a lot up through the 70s, and it's been a steady decline ever since. Not that the Miss America pageant is unique in this, but the only noteworthy news that comes out of it is controversy and scandal (and they "lucked out" in having none of that this year). The criticism that started during the late 60s from feminists and the left culminated in the 1984 scandal over then-Miss America Vanessa Williams's Penthouse Magazine photos; unexpectedly, since that event, Williams has come out in much better shape than the pageant! These days, the hottest thing to come out of Miss America is silliness like last year's winner going on an abstinence crusade.

Update: They got lucky--sort of. The 2003 pageant roped in just over 10 million viewers, still an all-time low. I'm really surprised it got that many; I was expecting more like 8 million, or less. Funny how ABC is saying that it's happy with that regardless, as it was enough to win Saturday night and the week.

Want to hear more on why beauty contests like this suck in general? Steve Timko shares his history with pageant shenanigans.