A former “Miss” contender weighs in on the unending conversation about the racial and ethnic backgrounds of pageant contestants.
“It’s not a beauty pageant, its a scholarship program.”
That’s the infamous line uttered by Sandra Bullock’s character in the 2000 Hollywood comedy “Miss Congeniality” that pokes fun at the world of pageants.
“Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Little Miss Sunshine” are other such comedy films spoofing the subculture of pageantry. And of course there are reality TV shows like TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which follows the families of contestants in child beauty pageants.
I’d say that up until a few weeks ago, when Nina Davuluri, America’s first Miss America of Indian descent was crowned, most Americans viewed pageants as a joke, a relic of the past or an outdated tradition of Americana.
However, Davuluri’s win — and the racism her win elicited — has brought race relations in America to the forefront once again.
Soon after she was tapped, Twitter users began commenting that the Miss America could be a “terrorist,” as they mistakenly thought she was of Middle Eastern origin.
This was followed by racist jokes about 7-Eleven convenience stores and Indian Americans.
Davuluri won, having elected to tackle the problems of racism and intolerance via her platform called “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.” In addition she launched “Circles of Unity,” a social media campaign to promote multiculturalism and civil discourse.
“I’ve grown up with so many stereotypes about my culture, I just knew that it was something I needed to advocate for,” Davuluri told the Washington Post. “A lot of the remarks weren’t meant to be malicious, but just due to the fact of ignorance.”
Beauty pageants after third-wave feminism?
Before I go any further, I’ll offer a few disclaimers: I’m a former “Miss” myself. In 2003, while I was a graduate student at an Ivy League school on the East Coast, I competed for and won the title of Miss Elm City — a.k.a. Miss New Haven, Connecticut. I then went on to compete at the Miss Connecticut pageant.
I’ll admit that before my foray into it, I was skeptical of pageants and the world or pageantry in general. Of course the idea of winning an academic scholarship was important and alluring to me. But to have to don an evening gown and parade around in a swimsuit and high heels to demonstrate my worthiness for said scholarship? Oh, and I needed a talent too. Baton twirling, tap dancing… I eventually decided upon singing an operatic aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Still, I wondered why young women my age — third-wave feminist age — would endeavor to take part in such a spectacle. So I decided to try and find out.
What started as a sociological experiment and a way to maybe earn some money to put toward my graduate school expenses taught me some interesting lessons about the intersection of American values and gender norms.
When I was competing in pageants a decade ago, I also found that contestants were reflective of American diversity. The young women I met had come together for a variety of reasons. Of course those critical of pageants may point out that some take part for fame or some sort of validation, and that may be true in some cases. Some were attracted by the prospect of a scholarship. Some were passionate about a cause, and viewed the title they would win as a platform for their advocacy, such as Davuluri’s “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency” initiative.
Davuluri’s win has prompted a renewed interest in the competition, where it had previously been regarded with a general air of skepticism on the part of the public at large. “People who couldn’t care less about Miss America — who maybe didn’t even know that the 92-year-old pageant was still televised — may have found themselves tweeting to defend Davuluri’s honor. The controversy has a big silver lining for the Miss America Organization, which is constantly fighting obsolescence in a culture that finds bigger stars in reality TV,” the Washington Post observed. The article continued:
“Until Davuluri, generally the only time you heard about a pageant in the past decade was when one of the contestants said something stupid. But the ratings have revived, perhaps in part to our national enthusiasm for tweeting along with live TV. This year’s broadcast on ABC was the best showing since 2004, attracting 10 million viewers during its last half-hour, 18 percent more than last year. People may still question the relevance of beauty pageants with every rhinestone crown that makes its way to a new set of shiny tresses, but the conversation is beginning to change.”
TIME magazine reflected on Davuluri’s crowning:
“Thankfully the days of peroxide blonde barbie dolls dominating the pageant are long gone, with two of the runners up this year, Crystal Lee and Rebecca Yeh, boasting Asian roots. And this really shouldn’t be a surprise given that white children have fallen into the minority of those born in the U.S., according to the latest census data.”
I watched this year’s pageant and was very happy Davuluri won. Davuluri attended college at the University of Michigan and won several scholastic honors including the Dean’s List, Michigan Merit Award and the National Honor Society Award.
She graduated in 2012 with a B.S. in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science. She wants to be a doctor and plans to use a $50,000 scholarship she won as part of the pageant to apply for medical school.
Race and pageants
But I can’t help but wonder: what does the tirade of racism reveal about how far America has come — or hasn’t — in its thinking on race relations and true equality?
It’s also been mentioned in recent news articles that Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to be named Miss America exactly thirty years ago.
“When I met her we were talking how coincidental it was,” Williams told The Daily Beast. “It’s crazy. Same night, same locale, and same state. And unfortunately, same bashing as well. I had to deal with it at 20, and she’s dealing with the same issue at 24.”
Williams “endured her fair share of misery after breaking the color barrier,” the article points out, including hate mail and even death threats after her win.
“I wrote a book about everything that I went through, and I spent a lot of time talking about the death threats, the FBI, the sharpshooters,” she says. “It was a graver situation and more dangerous years ago—the change that was happening and the uproar because of the color of my skin. I don’t know all of the negativity [towards Nina], and I frankly could care less, but I heard some of the comments about whether she’s Muslim and what religion she is, which is ridiculous. She won fair and square and she’s doing an amazing job.”
Moreover, in 1945 when Bess Myerson was elected the first Jewish Miss America she also faced prejudice and was urged to use a name that sounded less Jewish. Recently the Anti-Defamation League issued a comment on Davuluri’s win and the backlash it generated, comparing it to the situation in 1945, when Myerson won.
“It is deeply troubling that the crowning of the first woman of Indian descent to win the Miss America pageant — an achievement to be celebrated — has been greeted with a series of racist and hate-filled messages on Twitter and other social media,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL’s national director, to the LA Times. “The reaction in some quarters to the crowning of Ms. Davuluri is a reminder of how much work remains to be done in this country to ensure that America remains no place for hate.”
“Ms. Davuluri’s platform of ‘celebrating diversity through cultural competency’ is a message that all Americans and people of good will should strive to emulate,” he said.
It’s disheartening to note that the same issues Myerson and Williams dealt with three decades ago are still issues today. It also unfortunate that in the year 2013 racism and ignorance are still ugly problems that tarnish the American visage. I am hopeful that Davuluri will be able to fulfill her dreams, and continue her work towards ending racism, thus helping America to be a stronger and more egalitarian.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.