The Miss USA pageant finale aired live on Monday night, the culmination of a week’s worth of preliminary judging of women between the ages of 18-28, ending with millions tuning in at home to do the same for the final round. The competition this year can essentially be summed up by the winner’s circle: the crown went to 23-year-old Sarah Rose Summer of Nebraska, despite essentially bombing both her questions at the end. Meanwhile the runner-up, Miss North Carolina, championed sexual assault prevention during both her Q&As. The pageant organizers may acknowledge the elephant in the room, in other words, but they are not at all ready to actually address it.
The history of pageants in America is a tale of two separate yet similar contests. Miss USA is not to be confused with the other major U.S. pageant, Miss America, which airs in the fall. Both shows are on the wane, but Miss USA has fallen farther with a mere two million tuning in last year, down from four million in 2016. Yet there’s still an audience for this sort of show, or at least enough of one that Fox continues to air it year after year, despite an unclear purpose and a growing chorus of critics who argue it’s outdated and misogynist.
There’s still an audience for this sort of show, or at least enough of one that Fox continues to air it year after year, despite an unclear purpose and a growing chorus of critics who argue it’s outdated and misogynist.
In response to this criticism, Miss America has become desperate to be seen as feminist in the 21st century. Created in the 1920s as a “bathing beauty” contest in Atlantic City, Miss America was originally a gimmick, as well as an excuse, to get people come to the beachside resort town during a month that wasn’t the summertime. Preparing to celebrate its centennial in 2021, Miss America is also under brand new management, having overthrown its entire board in the wake of a host of #MeToo harassment scandals. Indeed for the first time this year, the pageant will be run by an all-women’s team, made up mostly of former Miss America competitors and winners.
Miss USA has no use for such progressive niceties. A rival company that broke away from Miss America back in 1950, the pageant has expanded to become a worldwide franchise that culminates in the Miss Universe pageant, held in December. Perhaps coincidentally — or perhaps not — Miss USA was run for decades by Donald Trump, who appears to have used it mostly as an excuse to talk to (and occasionally walk in on) young women while they were half-dressed. (This also explains why Trump went to Russia to see the Miss Universe pageant in 2013. He owned it.)
During the Trump years, when the show was aired on NBC along with “The Apprentice,” it was also a pipeline to the network’s reality show casting offices. Trump sold the pageant in 2015, after Univision and NBC refused to air it in light of his racist remarks in the early months of his campaign for president. It is now owned by William Morris the talent representation company that represents such esteemed actors as Mel Gibson, Tim Allen and Quentin Tarantino.
But the pageant’s focus on talent scouting is only part of what sets it apart from the competition. Miss USA was founded on the principle that a sponsor should be able to demand anything of the winner, no matter her feelings on the matter. From the beginning, it has always been the more commercialized version of the competition. The pageant's reason for breaking away was due in large part to a controversy involving the winner of Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze, who refused to pose in a swimsuit after winning the crown.
In a way, the clearly more patriarchal nature of Miss USA is bracing. At the very least, you can’t accuse organizers of soft-pedaling anything.
Ask the women in charge of Miss America what their pageant is about and the first thing that comes up is “scholarships.” (The Miss America competition is run as a non-profit; Miss USA is for-profit.) Bowing to social pressure, Miss America’s swimsuit competition has been rebranded as a judging of “fitness,” and the show continues to push the “talent” portion as well.
Miss USA, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to care about anyone’s education, though it does have a scholarship or two floating around for the asking. Instead, it makes noises about “self-confidence” being the only thing in the world that holds women back from their dreams. Welcome to empowerment through swimsuit sales.
In a way, the clearly more patriarchal nature of Miss USA is bracing. At the very least, you can’t accuse organizers of soft-pedaling anything. This year, the show was hosted by Nick Lachey and his wife Vanessa (a former Miss Teen USA), because who better to introduce a parade of women than a twice-married D-list celebrity couple popular with the Christian conservative crowd? Contestants in Miss USA also tend to wear skimpier swimsuits and evening gowns that are tighter and lower-cut. In other words, Miss USA is running on “titillation and proud of it.”
Miss USA did at least attempt to acknowledge the #MeToo movement by including a montage asking contestants if they’d had such a moment themselves. The resulting video was a head turner as every single one said yes. It was slightly shocking to see dozens upon dozens of beauty queens admit, to a woman, they’d all been harassed and assaulted, and some at very young ages. But the moment was brief, because there were hair products to advertise — and then it was time for the evening gown competition!
This missed opportunity was made even starker by the selection of Miss Nebraska over Miss North Carolina. Not that those familiar with the criteria were surprised: 2017’s Miss USA held all the correct opinions for our Trumpian age, including insisting she was not a feminist and that healthcare was not an universal human right. In an era where "Roseanne" is the top sitcom on TV, Miss USA seems to be doubling down on its legacy as Trump’s pageant, believing that this swing of the pendulum back to a more conservative era is what middle America really wants. With ratings holding steady in the two million range, maybe they, like the president, have indeed found a solid floor worth pandering to.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.