Of the institutions and events in the United States that might be admired for leading the charge toward equality, beauty pageants are not likely to be considered among them. In a culture that is overwhelmingly, unbearably concerned with the manufactured female beauty of magazine covers and TV screens, beauty pageants seem only to echo these impossible visions.
And not only do they present a constructed ideal, but the entire premise seems to be centered on objectification: judges look at them, score them, and then determine who deserves the title. Though there are segments devoted to questions and opinions, it is only the swimsuit portion that earns “coming up next” reminders at the bottom of the screen.
Beauty pageants are, by and large, not a space to reinvent beauty; beauty here demands particular, rigid ideals of femininity.
Still, Canadian Jenna Talackova forced her own expansion of the terms of beauty when in 2012, after she was at first disqualified from Miss Universe because of her trans identity. Due to her outrage, she hired Gloria Allred to take her case and fight for her ability to compete. After some struggle, the legal threats triumphed, and Miss Universe owner Donald Trump begrudgingly changed pageant rules and allowed her this freedom.
This battleground for trans equality happened to take the form of the beauty pageant. And in a world where, in most places in the United States, trans-identified individuals are still subject to many legal forms of discrimination, including but by no means limited to unequal service and workplace treatment, Jenna Talackova forced beauty pageants to matter. She forced change in a world where there are still so many battles left to be won.
Fast forward to September 15, 2013, when Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American ever to win the Miss America title. Perhaps it was the reaction that spoke most to the weight of this decision: endless outrage on Twitter about the choice of a “terrorist” Miss America (“Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you”), and about Davuluri not being “American” enough (“I swear I’m not racist but this is America”), have proven, nauseatingly, again and again, that the culture we live in is deeply racist and deeply ignorant.
And, despite the rigid definitions of beauty, Miss America proved that maybe, just maybe, white is not a requirement for beauty. Maybe, indeed, white is not even a requirement for being an American!
That the inflection of heresy still lingers in these claims is enough to give weight to the pageant’s decision. In a site that, by nature, demands objectification and judgment of what it means to be appropriately female, there may nevertheless, paradoxically, startlingly, be opportunity for progress.
It does not mean everything. But it could not evoke reactions like “Miss America? More like Miss 7/11!” without meaning something.