“We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition,” said Gretchen Carlson, the new chair of Miss America’s board of directors, in an interview on ABC. She followed the statement with the bombshell news that the century old beauty pageant would be dropping the bikini segment of its competition.

“We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance.” Carlson sees this as opportunity to reform the organisation and what it stands for from within. It will become “100 percent about empowering women.”

Miss America has had a long history of controversy and has unfortunately been a reflection of much of the country’s discrimination and social bias. In 1984, nude photographs of the pageant’s first African-American winner, Vanessa Williams, were published in Penthouse without her consent. She was forced to step down in disgrace whilst the magazine sales made a reported USD 14 million for the publisher.  When Nina Davuluri, the first Indian American queen in 2013 was crowned, she was greeted with a torrent of online abuse and hate mail, many of which depicted her as a “terrorist.”

Nina Davuluri Miss America 2013

Many have claimed that removing the bikini clad portion of the show has been a reactionary response to the #metoo movement. Last year, Sam Haskell, the CEO of the Miss America Organisation had to step down after email exchanges containing sexist and crude conversations were made public.

Of course, current social discourse weighs heavily on the decision but the movement is by no means the first form of activism that has called into question the practices of beauty pageants. Fifty years ago, in 1968, hundreds of women converged outside the Atlantic City Convention Centre to call attention to the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.”

It was the protest that sparked the association of feminist protestation with bra burning. Furthermore, most seem to underestimate the personal drive for reformation that Gretchen Carlson possesses.

Demonstrators from the National Women’s Liberation Movement picket the 1968 Miss America Pageant.

As a former Fox News anchor, Carlson had left the company after filing highly publicised law suits against its chairman Roger Ailes, inspiring a number of women to come forward about sexual harassment at the news agency and eventually bringing him down along with a number of his powerful male lackeys. Added to this, Carlson herself is a former Miss America winner, crowned in 1989.

Her passion for the contest and what it can mean for young women is unwavering. “We want to be open, transparent, inclusive to women who may not have felt comfortable participating in our program before,” she said. “We’re interested in what makes you you. At the end of the day, we hand out scholarships to these women. We want more women to know they are welcome in this organization.” The organisation features a USD 50,000 scholarship for its winner.

Gretchen Carlson on the cover of TIME magazine. She was one of the early adopters of the #metoo movement

Removing a part of the competition that judges contestants on physical attractiveness falls in line with Miss America’s public image, that has always sought to distinguish itself apart from other beauty pageants that do not have talent segments in their shows, such as its biggest competitor and Donald Trump owned Miss USA.

Yet, some are critical of the move. Some suggest that the decision does nothing to solve the problem of sexual harassment itself but rather blames women for showing off too much skin. The women of #metoo “did not sign up to be judged on their beauty. They didn’t ask to be cornered by their bosses and slobbered on or be propositioned so their career could advance” writes Karol Markowicz for the New York Post. 

Miss America waves goodbye to the bikini challenge portion of its show.

Whatever the motives for the change, it is still change nonetheless. Although, we will not be expecting every other competition to immediately follow suit, Miss America has now set a long overdue precedent for beauty contests. The precedent is not that the public should tell women how to dress or how to judge themselves by, but rather that the organisations themselves should now be helmed by women — women, like Carlson, who have been victim to its culture but now can change it.

 

Tengku Muzhaffar Petra
Watches and Culture Editor