Historic Miss America sidesteps controversy

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In news you might have missed, 22-year old Madison Marsh – a second lieutenant in the Air Force and master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School’s public policy program – was crowned Miss America in Orlando, Florida.

Marsh, representing the state of Colorado, is the first active-duty Air Force officer ever to receive the national title. Southerner by birth, born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Marsh graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in physics focusing on astronomy.

Upon her victory, March paid tribute to her late mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Shortly after her mother’s death, Marsh founded The Whitney Marsh Foundation, which raises money for pancreatic cancer research, awareness, early detection, and patient care. This is her platform.

Since their inception as part of the pageant apparatus in 1989, platforms have been one of the most scrutinized aspects of the contest. While the majority of Miss Americas have served largely controversy-free reigns, there have been a few who managed to garner the ire of certain segments of the country.

One such former winner was Kira Kazantsev, Miss America 2015.

Kazantsev worked at a planned parenthood as an intern, and drew considerable outrage among conservative viewers. Organizations such as the National Right To Life (arguably the direct antitheses to Planned Parenthood) wasted no time going after Kazantsev, while a number of conservative websites levied attacks against her character and what they perceived as her lack of moral values. For the most part, Kazantsev took the criticism in stride and was unapologetic about her activities.

Miss America 1976, Tawny Godin (then Tawny Little), outraged many pageant fans when she stated she supported a woman’s right to an abortion. Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984 and the first Black woman to win the crown, was the victim of racial hostility and death threats by those who saw her victory as an affront. Nina Davuluri faced similar racial hostility as well from disgruntled internet bloggers when she became the first Miss America of East Indian heritage. The late Leanza Cornett, Miss America 1993, announced that she was a pro-choice Christian Republican and was viewed with a jaundiced eye by many conservative pageant fans.

Incidentally, during the 1990s, there were a number of Miss Americas who arguably had controversial platforms and still won the crown. Cornett adopted AIDS awareness as her platform. Her successor, Kimberly Aiken, Miss America 1994, took on the plight of the homeless for her cause. For Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, safe sex and condom distribution in public schools was her platform. Each walked off with the crown. Laura Kaeppeler, Miss America 2012, touted mentoring children of incarcerated parents.

The reality is that Miss Americas are complex human beings. Despite wearing a tiara and traveling across the nation for a year promoting their causes, they have emotions and opinions just like the rest of us. Some are liberal, while others are conservative. Some hold deeply political beliefs, while others are completely apolitical.

There are some on the right who need to realize that not every Miss America is going to be devoutly religious or necessarily be excessively patriotic. There are others on the left who need to come to the realization that women who decide to participate in the Miss America contest or any pageant cannot be stereotyped and broadly labeled as people with low self-esteem, limited intellect, entrenched with a hyper intensive level of narcissism, lacking a social conscience or being manipulated by a sexist culture. Such regressive thinking of both camps is myopic and backward.

It is probably safe to say all of the nation’s Miss America winners embody characteristics that can be found in all of us. They are not monolithic – they’re human.

Copyright 2024 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.