Miss America Contestants and the Self: Evidence for
By Brook Matthews
Table of Contents
A. Description of Topic III. Literature Review
A. History of Miss America
B. Pageant Boot Camp: Legitimizing the Queen
D. The Male Gaze
E. Gender Oppression
F. The Self and TST
A. Research Questions
B. Measuring the Contestant Self V. Results and Analysis
A. Part One – Nature of the Self
B. Part Two – Subject Matter
C. Part Three – Strength of the Self VI. Conclusion
VII. About the Author
A. Table 4: Tally Sheet for Parts One, Two and Three
B. Coding Instructions
C. Coding Sheet
D. I-statement examples IX. Bibliography
―Empowerers seek to foster growth in others by assisting
individuals in finding and using their own power‖ (Muller, 1994).
This work is dedicated to the empowerers in my life; those who have helped me find and use my own power to do things I only dreamed about as a child. I often speak about my first experience as a pageant contestant and what a defining moment that was. For the first time in my life, I truly felt proud of who I was and what I was doing. That experience translated into a philosophy that has guided me ever since: I can accomplish great things by believing in myself and taking a chance. However, it took the encouragement and open-heartedness of the following empowerers to provide the direction and opportunities for me to exercise that philosophy:
Dr. Montgomery, who told me four years ago, ―Everyone has a story.‖ She has since assisted me in writing a new chapter in my own story, by spending countless hours reviewing the work you are about to read. With an eagle-eye for recognizing the potential of her students, she works selflessly in helping them achieve their dreams.
Dr. Wicks, who has an uncanny way of pushing her students until they are intellectually exhausted and think they can go no further. Just when we think we‘ve reached the edge, her understanding of life as a student emboldens us to go one step further than we ever imagined.
Bill Matthews, my father, who I have always turned to for advice. He served as an objective critic and has reviewed this work several times, helping me remove my ―pageant blinders‖ so I could see MAO for what it is – warts and all.
Rhonda Matthews, my mother and confidant, who has stood beside me every step of the way. She is who I turn to for an ear to gripe at or a shoulder to cry on…Lord knows there were plenty of those moments during the past few months!
My ―pageant family‖: Directors, volunteers and fellow contestants. The experiences I have shared with you are what started me on this ―journey of self-
exploration.‖ I hope this work will help us all better understand ourselves and our
critics, that we may be able to improve and more effectively defend MAO.
I am pleased to share with these people the result of their encouragement and direction. One of the most important lessons learned in writing this is that empowerment is a chain linking people together through the relationships they build. My hope is that following graduation, I will be able to continue the chain of empowerment through the new relationships I build. Seeing the results of such an endeavor will truly be one of life‘s ―crowning‖ achievements.
Description of Topic - For more than 80 years, the Miss America pageant
has prompted positive and negative emotional responses from contestants and
viewers alike, signaling society‘s ambivalence ―when female beauty is equated with competitiveness and must be judged‖ (Watson & Martin, p. 123). Protests of the pageant that began in the 1920s led to regulations and changes aimed at the systematic legitimization of the pageant as a way to empower women. Such legitimization has come in the form of rules and contestant contracts, judging procedures, changes in telecast format, and most importantly, the pageant‘s position as a scholarship program that empowers women.
This study examines the rule changes that led to today‘s Miss America (MA) pageant‘s main focus – awarding scholarship to women – which the Miss
America Organization (MAO) claims sets the program apart from ―beauty contests‖ and gives it a noble raison d’etre.
MAO is the world‘s largest provider of scholarships to women, awarding more than $40 million each year in scholarship monies to thousands of contestants (Greco, p. 53). While scholarships are the cornerstone of MAO, a focus on personal growth, development and empowerment is also a key component of the program‘s mission:
―The Miss America Organization is a not-for-profit organization that has
maintained a tradition for many decades of empowering American women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum for them to express their opinions, talents and intelligence,‖ (Miss America Mission Statement).
Despite the organization‘s attempt to focus on scholarship, personal growth, development and empowerment, the pageant has long had a ―meat
market‖ reputation in which young women‘s bodies are displayed and ogled at during swimsuit competition. ―The basic, and base, pageant appeal is and always has been, girl-watching – and the fewer clothes, the better,‖ (Deford, p. 11).
Beauty contests were not uncommon in the years leading up to the first MA pageant. However, what set MA apart from early beauty contests was its inclusion of the bathing suit competition. This early focus on young women in bathing attire proved to be a successful promotional gimmick benefiting Atlantic City resort owners, as over 100,000 spectators gathered to watch (Timeline). It was during this time that, ―Producers of even ‗legitimate‘ theatrical venues found that the display of women, particularly in scanty attire, was lucrative business,‖
(Latham, p. 154).
Critics charge that ―the display‖ of female bodies, which the MA pageant seems to represent, contributes to the objectification of women. This objectification is said to occur through the pageant‘s ability to set up ―the gaze,‖ or ―visual inspection of the body,‖ (Kaschak 1992; Fredrickson & Roberts, p. 175). Stage competition, especially swimsuit competition, is where ―the gaze‖ primarily occurs within the pageant. In addition to objectification during stage competitions, contestants also face the objectifying gaze on a day-to-day basis from other contestants, parents, directors and coaches. Consequently, the meat-market atmosphere of the pageant is said to contribute to the objectification of contestants that may put them at risk for developing psychological problems, including depression, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
However, contestant testimonials such as one made by Miss Nebraska 2000, Jill Pennington, support Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) observation that not all women respond to objectification in the same way:
―My participation in the Miss America Program has given me so much; friendships, public speaking skills, memories, scholarships. However, I believe the most valuable benefit for me has been an increased sense of self,‖ (Pennington, 2001).
Maintaining a sense of personal power in the face of objectification is essential to success in the pageant world and some say MA contestants have mastered the art of not letting anyone ―rattle their cage.‖ In doing so, these young women may have found a strength that could be used to help other women overcome the negative impacts of objectification.
This paper examines whether MA is accomplishing its mission of
empowerment by exploring the phenomenon of personal power among MA contestants in terms of the nature and strength of the self, as well as subject matter they talk about when referring to the self. The lack of research on this topic and the need to improvise quantitative measurement tools mean that this thesis cannot answer this question definitively; instead, this is a pilot exploration. The author acknowledges that the pageant does, in fact, judge physical beauty, which may cause some contestants to feel objectified. However, the study suggests that some contestants read the objectification in the reverse of the first-glance meaning (what some authors call a ―subversive reading‖ that is the opposite of the first-
glance meaning), thereby turning their situation into an opportunity for personal
growth. The following framework will be used to gauge MA contestant empowerment:
Strong Sense of Self=>Personal Power=>Empowerment
Many aspects of the pageant process are examined with special attention to questions MA contestants must answer in front of an audience during competition. The next section, the literature review, explains some of the steps taken by MAO to legitimize the pageant, the components of empowerment, and the link between objectification and ―the gaze.‖
History of Miss America - Atlantic City resort
owners began the pageant in 1921 as a promotional gimmick
to extend the summer vacation season. The Inter-City
MA 1921 Margaret Gorman
Beauty Pageant, part of Atlantic City‘s Fall Frolic, was sponsored by several
national newspapers and attracted eight contestants. Thousands of onlookers watched as 15-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., was crowned Miss America in a swimsuit. (Timeline)
Latham (1995) claims that the pageant acted as a catalyst in the legitimization of public displays of female nudity. At a time when swimwear censorship was strictly enforced,
the Miss America pageant sprung
up uninhibited by rules applied to
beach-goers. Rules included
proper skirt length and the donning
of tights to cover the lower part of
the leg (Latham, p. 152). ―They 1921 Swimsuit Line-up, Gorman on far right.
(women) may blister their backs and necks if they wish, but not the lower part of their legs,‖ said Long Island Police Capain, Walter Barriscale, of the restrictions (―Bars Beach Lizards‖, New York Times, 27 May 1921). Women who broke the
rules faced serious penalties such as arrest and jail time. However, police officers that enforced dress codes on the beach flocked to watch scantily clad contestants model the forbidden swimsuits on the stage. In 1921, the pageant became an ―acceptable‖ display of feminine ―nudity‖ and swimsuit competition became a mainstay of American pageantry.
The ―display‖ provided by the pageant proved successful, and by 1923 more than 70 contestants converged in Atlantic City to participate (Timeline).
However, the looming depression and negative media attention brought on by, ―Charges of fraud, contestants being married, falsifying residences and other factors,‖ shut the pageant down from 1929 to 1932 (Latham, p. 108; Banner, p.
12). In 1923, ―Miss‖ Boston came to the pageant with her husband and seven month-old baby and ―Miss‖ Alaska, also married, was a resident of New York City (Watson & Martin, p. 107-108). Religious and women‘s groups labeled the
pageant ―indecent‖ and accused the program of corrupting national morality, as one early protestor stated, ―Before the competition, the contestants were splendid examples of innocence and pure womanhood. Afterward, their heads were filled with vicious ideas,‖ (Transcript).
Lenora Slaughter was hired in 1935 to polish the pageant‘s reputation. She made changes that improved and protected the pageant‘s
reputation. Age restrictions were put in place (women ages
18-26); and talent competition was added (Timeline).
Slaughter installed the society matron chaperone system that
is still in place today to guard contestants from ―unscrupulous Executive Director Lenora Slaughter
men.‖ Contestants were also required to sign contracts guaranteeing that they had not committed acts of ―moral turpitude.‖
In 1940, the pageant name was officially changed from ―The Showman‘s Variety Jubilee‖ to the ―Miss America Pageant‖ and was moved to its current home in the Atlantic City‘s Convention Hall (Watson & Martin, p. 109). Only one contestant was allowed to represent each state; Mu Alpha Sigma, the pageant