Gender

Fake Boobs, Donald Trump and Miss USA: Why Do Trashy Beauty Pageants Still Exist?

The latest tabloid controversy over the Miss USA pageant yet again begs the question: Why is anyone taking this stuff seriously?

If you haven't heard of Carrie Prejean by now, well, consider yourself lucky.

The 21-year-old beauty queen made a name for herself at this year's Miss USA pageant when she uttered a barely decipherable three sentences in response to a question about gay marriage. Through a uranium smile, she voiced her support for "opposite marriage" -- now an Urban Dictionary entry meaning marriage between a man and a woman -- because that's what her family believes in ("no offense to anybody!").

So there you have it: a pageant finalist invoked a bigoted viewpoint in a pageant-vacuous response. Is it really such a shock that Prejean, a cog in a system where it's common practice for fathers to steer their glitzed-up daughters across a stage in what amounts to a scored debutante ball, echoed what she was "raised to believe" during her 15-second reply?

Apparently so. A media shit storm as lowbrow as a rhinestone-covered evening gown ensued, starting with Perez Hilton, the blogger who asked Miss California the question, running home to his Web cam and posting a video calling Prejean a "dumb bitch" (later during a TV interview Hilton noted he should have used the "c-word"), a response for which Entertainment Weekly anointed him "an unlikely hero."

Partially nude photos of the beauty queen were surreptitiously released to the media, prompting a tearful press conference on Prejean's part and speculation over whether Trump would let her keep her title. (There was a hyped-up press conference for that, too.)

Under the guise of responding to the controversy, Keith Olbermann and Michael Musto devoted an entire segment on MSNBC to misogynistic quips about Prejean's "performance-enhanced" body, Musto at one point nonsensically saying that the pageant must have paid "to cut off her penis."

Meanwhile, Prejean, finding new support in far-right Christian groups, told an interviewer that God was whispering in her ear that night. She was booked to host Fox & Friends for a day.

The weirdest twist of all came when the Miss California Organization leaked the news that the organization itself had paid the bill on Prejean's pre-pageant breast implants. According to Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing.com, the revelation showed "that pageants aren't about highlighting women as they are or for their talents, but for their physical appearance and to make spectacle of a specific type of femininity."

The organization's admittance that it funneled money into the exterior "enhancement" of Prejean kept the ongoing controversy firmly in the spotlight -- at the expense of sacrificing any legitimacy its official criteria of promoting "savvy, goal-oriented, and aware" women may have afforded it.

In 1984, Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, was dethroned over nude photographs. But in 2009, Miss California USA officials were all too happy to fan the flames of tabloid controversy.

Which begs the question --  why is anyone taking this stuff seriously? And why, oh why, are we awarding political relevance to a contest that profits by showcasing women in bikinis and high heels in the first place?

The argument that pageants are outdated at best, sexist at worst, is nothing new. It has surfaced repeatedly over the past few decades, most notably at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, where the first large-scale protest of the event was staged outside the Atlantic City Convention Center. (The much-loved conservative myth of the rabid bra-burning feminist got its legs at this gathering when women tossed aprons and bras into a large bin as a symbolic disavowal of traditional femininity. None were actually lit on fire.)

The reasons for protesting Miss America as an institution were obvious: Public unrest with the Vietnam War was beginning to surface, and Miss America was on tour with the USO. The sexual revolution was under way, and the Miss America contest continued to perpetuate the virtues of an antiquated feminine ideal and a narrowly defined beauty standard.

Pepsi, an 11-year sponsor of Miss America, pulled out at the end of the decade, stating that "Miss America as run today does not represent the changing values of our society."

But anachronistic as it was, the pageant still garnered some 80 million viewers in the 1960s, making it, if not quite the national representation of American womanhood it claimed it to be, at the very least, a cultural mainstay prominent enough to be protested.

Richard Nixon famously said it was the only program he let his daughters stay up to watch. Today, Miss America has fallen off network TV altogether -- it airs on TLC framed around a makeshift reality show called Miss America: Reality Check, intended to showcase the beauty queens' more-accessible sides through boot camp drills like carrying a full martini glass across a teeter-totter. (Finally, something we can relate to!)

Miss USA hasn't faired much better, despite what the current headlines about the first runner-up's breasts may imply. Last month, a Simpsons episode aired on the same evening beat the Miss USA pageant by 2 million viewers. Recently, a Miss California USA official, in pointing out what was wrong with Prejean's anti-gay marriage comments, explained to CNN that wearing the Miss USA crown means, "I represent everyone." It sounded like a bad joke. 

It's also a lofty sentiment for what, in 1921, began as a simple ploy to get Atlantic City vacationers to stay past Labor Day.

The first Miss America competition was so literally a beauty contest that each body part was afforded a certain score. A girl's legs, according to the PBS documentary, Miss America, could be worth one to five points.

Over the years, the pageant redefined itself as a larger representation of American womanhood, and a conflicted one at that. Lenora Slaughter, a Southern Baptist, was brought in as the pageant's executive secretary in 1935 to perpetuate a more conservative, respectful ideal of American femininity -- one that gave preference to girls who could trace their ancestry to the Mayflower, and required contestants to be "of white race" and possess a talent, be it baton twirling or ballet. 

The pageant was inventing and glorifying the concept of a wholesome, domestic American beauty at the same time it continued to profit off the baser entertainment value of girls with sex appeal lined up in scanty swimsuits. Philip Roth, in a 1957 New Republic piece, touched on the unique contradiction of the Miss America pageant, writing: "All those lovely legs are really girls, who, when asked what they admire most will talk to the flesh's distraction about their brothers and their daddies." 

(It should be noted that Miss America and Miss USA are two distinct pageants. Miss USA was launched in 1950 by Catalina swimwear, a former sponsor of Miss America, after a Miss America winner refused to appear in its swimsuit ads. The major difference between the two is that Miss USA doesn't require a talent nor does it give scholarships, making Miss USA the Jessica to Miss America's Type-A Elizabeth. In the swimwear and evening gown portions of the contest, they're still interchangeable twins at Sweet Valley High.)

But the universals that carried the Miss America legend for a good part of the century -- the national audience, the conservative ideal, not to mention the self-exalting "Here She Comes Miss America" theme song -- have little relevance in the modern world, where television has perfected sex-sells entertainment and there are a gajillion shows on countless channels that display scantily clad women. Why watch a formal pageant when there are girls in bikinis mud wrestling for the affection of Bret Michaels on Rock of Love?

The accolades and signifiers remain -- the sash, the teary winner's walk down the runway -- but the significance is void. In 1950, Miss America was a household name; today the waving winner of Miss USA goes to live in a New York Trump penthouse with Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe for a year.

And  the recent, grossly out-of-touch remarks made by Miss Universe during a visit to Guantanamo dispel any remaining notion that pageant titleholders serve a meaningful representative purpose, if they ever did. In a reality where the public has seen photographic evidence of Guantanamo atrocities, and the majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's plan to shut the camp down, Miss Universe cluelessly blogged her visit to Gitmo with all the solemnity of a tween writing home from summer camp, "It was a looooooot of fun!" 

Still, despite the fading relevance of the Miss America institution, pageantry continues to thrive as a small-town hobby. There's a $5 billion child pageant industry that has kindergarten-age girls dyeing their hair and caking on makeup for 5,000 or so annual competitions held in the U.S. The so-called kiddie pageant culture earned a Lynchian creepiness when footage of slain 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey depicted the little girl as a premature sex symbol, dolled up with an overly painted face and a disconcertingly sultry smile.

Once a phenomenon limited to the Deep South -- in a 1997 New Yorker piece, Susan Orlean called child pageants in the region "as common as barbecue" -- the competitions have since expanded to other enclaves of small-town America.

On the local level, pageantry is as much a lucrative hobby as it is a town event for the predominately lower-middle-class families who enter. There are cash prizes as high as $100,000 for babies as young as 1 month old, in categories like "Most Beautiful" and "Prettiest Smile." And the companies that sponsor the events, many started by pageant moms themselves, net profits in the hundreds of thousands for each contest.

What remains of the national pageant, however, is a muddled mockery of what was a quickly outdated premise to begin with.

Miss USA now banks on controversy as much as it banks on bikinis. Miss Teen South Carolina's world map "uh the Iraq, everywhere like such as" answer was the performance that launched a billion dumb-blonde spoofs on YouTube -- and a host of television appearances during which she got to "redo" her answer.

Miss Nevada USA sucked face with girls at clubs and became a national headline. Miss New Jersey dropped out of the Miss USA pageant after becoming pregnant (apparently you can compete having posed for semi-nude photos, but not with a belly bulge). And news of Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner's drinking and coke habits hit tabloids, as did her rehabilitation story, which she sold to People magazine (if there's one thing that sells better than a shamed woman, it's a repentant woman).

Now Carrie Prejean's persecution saga, in the words of the Miss Universe Organization itself, "has given us a lot of publicity, and there's going to be a lot of people watching the Miss USA pageant next year."

Miss USA creates its own controversy, because it needs to. It's not a relevant part of national debate, it's just a tabloid beauty pageant.