I started watching the Miss America Pageant as a kid. It was one of several telecasts I’d watch every year and looked forward to, along with annual showings of “The Wizard of Oz,” Disney’s “Fantasia” and of course the National Football League championship (precursor to the Super Bowl).
The whole family watched Miss America together, each of us competing to pick the finalists, the winner, even the order of the runner-ups. It was an era when families and the American public did more things together, and Miss America was the most popular show on television. The next day people would talk about the performances in the talent part of the competition and who they thought should have won, much like a sports championship but one that engaged both men and women.
Through the 1950s and ’60s, the Miss America Pageant was a straightforward, unselfconscious operation that gave the show an unpolished authenticity. Thousands of tiny town and industry-sponsored contests channeled contestants into regional and county pageants, whose winners competed to represent their states. Being Miss State of any state was a big deal, a public figure recognized by most of the state’s citizens. It opened up career paths and educational opportunities.
The country was less homogenized by mass communication then and the state winners reflected more geographic variation in manner of speech, sophistication, even character. Talents ranged from excellence on musical instruments of all kinds to a rifle twirler, a suitcase packer and a singing ventriloquist — and who could forget the dance performed inside a burlap bag?
A big appeal to the big TV audience was not just that the contestants were beautiful and accomplished, but they showed what that meant in their part of the country.
In my early 20s I discovered an additional way to appreciate the pageant’s take on the qualities of unmarried young women. Following the lead of author Aldous Huxley, I learned the basics of William Sheldon’s system for body typing, which considers the relative strength in each person of the three main physical structures — muscle and bones, digestive system and organs, and skin and nervous system. Miss America contestants never have body types dominated by one structure and the pageant’s preference for types has shifted slightly over the years to align with what’s currently valued or even just fashionable in society.
Today’s contestants seem to me as physically balanced and fit as they’ve ever been. Just about all of them look like they have serious workout routines. Something the organization might consider as an alternative to the discarded bathing suit segment is having them model their favorite workout attire while a short clip shows them exercising.
Even as Miss America provides a look at how the norms and tastes of young women shift, the competition itself tries to stay current and relevant. It was able to go beyond the preference for ethnic-majority winners with the crowning of Vanessa Williams in the early 1980s — more than two decades before that happened in presidential elections. Such efforts tell us something about trends in U.S. social views.
I don’t see much risk in the Miss America Organization’s quest for relevance and moral standing, which it always has worked to maintain. It needs a large audience to remain financially viable, and it needs a vast organization of mostly volunteers spread across the country to ensure it is credible.
While it is modernizing, MAO could bolster its base and its audience by allowing its state organizations enough autonomy to give their residents what they want in their pageants. Variety among state misses is a plus, at the state level and for the national finale.
Because of the nature of the competition, it will always be dominated by women with exceptional amounts of self-confidence and extroversion, as well as energy and attractiveness. That’s fine, but it’s also important for the process to go beyond this commonality in its deep sampling of American views on what qualities are desirable in a female life partner.
As long as it remains about unmarried young adult women and reaches into every part of the United States, Miss America will stay entertaining, informative and even socially valuable.
Kevin Post is editorial page editor.