Can the Miss America pageant survive in today’s culture?

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Earlier this month, Grace Stanke, a 23-year-old nuclear engineering student from Wausau, Wisc., was crowned Miss America 2023.

Stanke is a beautiful, blond-haired woman who is obviously gifted in math and science. She was crowned by her predecessor, Emma Broyles, Miss Alaska, who became the first woman from her state to win the title. But don’t be surprised if you missed it – for the second straight year, the pageant was streamed online and didn’t air on television.

A scandal in 2017 involving leaked emails in which top members of the Miss America Organization traded misogynistic barbs about contestants. Miss America 2018, Cara Mund decrying the treatment she allegedly received from pageant organizers, most notably, then CEO and Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson.

The scandals certainly didn’t endear a pleasant perception of the pageant to those who may have been on the fence, and the majority of former major sponsors have withdrawn their financial support.

Criticism has come from all sides. Left-leaning critics see the pageant as too resistant to change, while those on the right accuse organizers of attempting to abandon its traditionally conservative principles and rituals in an effort to appease liberals and progressives. The contest is caught in the middle of an ideological tug of war.

The fact that Stanke is blond haired is not a significant factor in the pageant world of the early 21st century. However, decades ago, it would have been seen as par for the course. Since its inception in 1921, race has been a mainstay of the Miss America Pageant.

In September 1945, a few months after the end of World War II, Bess Myerson, Miss New York, became the first — and is still currently — the only Jewish woman to wear the Miss America crown. Not surprisingly, there were some critics of Meyerson’s victory who claimed that postwar sympathies were a major factor in her winning the title.

Unlike her predecessors and successors, who were heavily booked and financially well compensated as they traveled across the nation, none of the pageant’s sponsors were willing to have their products associated with or advertised by a Jewish woman. Thus, Meyerson was absent from any pageant duties. She later stated:

“I couldn’t even stay in certain hotels… There would be signs that read, ‘No coloreds, no Jews, no dogs.’ I felt so rejected. Here I was chosen to represent American womanhood and then America treated me like this.”

Instead, Meyerson worked with the Anti-Defamation League, who convinced her to go on a national speaking tour addressing high school students about the dangers of hatred. As time progressed and such hatred slowly dwindled, she began to be offered entertainment and business opportunities that had previously been denied to her because of her heritage.

Antisemitism is hardly the only issue that has plagued the pageant. It took until 1970 for a Black contestant, Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa, to compete in the national pageant. More than a decade later, when Vanessa Williams was selected as Miss America 1984, she was subjected to virulent levels of hostility, including death threats. Williams even had to travel in certain parts of the nation with armed guards.

The specter of nativism reared it’s sinister head when Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, became the first Indian American woman to capture the crown. Almost immediately, Davuluri faced an onslaught of xenophobia and racism from bigoted detractors on social media. The horrific responses directed at each Miss America who deviated from the white, Christian “mainstream” highlight the conundrum the pageant has found itself facing in recent years.

To it’s credit, the Miss America pageant has made significant strides in overcoming its anti-WASP image, with a number of non-White winners over the years. In 2016, Erin O’Flaherty Miss Missouri, became the first openly-gay contestant.

Only time will tell whether the Miss America pageant will manage to survive amid today’s culture wars. Many have counted it’s demise over the years, only to see it rise and rebound. In that way it’s like a Timex watch, taking one hell of a licking, but manages to keep on ticking.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.