I haven't watched the Miss America pageant in years, and I'm betting you probably haven't either. Only 5.6 million people tuned into the last one. That's compared to 27 million people who watched in 1954 when the show debuted, and there were a lot fewer Americans then. Miss America has been losing viewers for over a decade, especially among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Since that group obviously enjoys reality-show competitions ("The Bachelorette," anyone?) there must be something seriously lacking — or even offensive — about the pageant for people to turn away from it.
Perhaps it's that the show purported to be about empowering women via a scholarship program, but part of a contestant's score depended on what her body looks like in a bikini. Or maybe it just wasn't that interesting to watch 50 women who look eerily similar strutting around on a stage in sparkly gowns being judged for their "style" and "grace"? The whole thing has always felt weird to me, since I was a teenager — like it honestly gives me the creeps.
I've never heard of a show in which a bunch of men compete for scholarship money by walking a stage in not-very-much, their chests greased up with coconut oil, their teeth coated in Vaseline. Maybe other women felt that gut-level unfairness too — even women who took part in the competition themselves when they were younger.
Now Miss America has an all-new, all-women leadership team, including Gretchen Carlson, who was crowned Miss America in 1989. Right out of the gate, they nixed the swimsuit and gown portions of the program. "We are no longer a pageant," Carlson said on "Good Morning America." "We are a competition."
It was past time to turn the page
This leadership change followed the revelation that the men formerly in charge of the pageant "regularly maligned, fat-shamed and slut-shamed the former Miss Americas, calling them shocking names and in one case laughing at the suggestion that one of the women should die," according to leaked emails published in the Huffington Post.
Turns out even the women who would consider running for Miss America weren't interested in being judged with their clothes off: "We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, 'We’d love to be a part of your program but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit,' so guess what, you don’t have to do that anymore," Carlson said. In place of the swimsuit "competition" (I was never sure how you could compete via bikini anyway) there will be a live session with judges. And instead of the hyper dolled-up evening gown competition, Miss America will be "asking contestants to wear attire that makes them feel confident, expresses their personal style and shows how they hope to advance the role of Miss America," according to ABC.
In the past, Miss America reified what I knew about growing up in the U.S. as a woman; that no matter how smart and talented I was, no matter how hard I worked, if I didn't look hot — in a very specific way — I wasn't good enough. If my teeth and skin weren't perfect, if my hair didn't fall in a certain way off my shoulders, and if I didn't wear a certain dress size, I wasn't really deserving. That's a pretty sad message to send to any growing girl.
"This is a new beginning, and change can sometimes be difficult, but I know a lot about change," Carlson said on "GMA." She was referencing the last 22 months of her life, as she has become a vocal member of the #MeToo movement, speaking out against sexual harassment after she sued her former boss, Fox News head Roger Ailes for that reason. I'm curious to see what else Carlson will do to ensure that the new Miss America reflects what a competition among women can be.
Since Miss America has changed its focus from body shape and dress-wearing to accomplishments and personality, I might tune in and cheer for all the women from the six states I've lived in. I'd love to see one of them take home the $50,000 cash prize, and the six-figure salary for a year of hard work.