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Dreamers, Dissidents, Flappers, and Feminists—A Pageant's 100-Year Quest To Define Womanhood

by Margot Mifflin

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-64009-223-5
Publisher: Counterpoint

The Miss America program heads toward its second century still trying to shed its image as a “leg show” or “cheesecake with a side of culture.”

Journalist Mifflin offers a lively and probing appraisal of a pageant that will observe its centennial in 2021. Drawing on research that includes interviews with former Miss Americas from different eras, this well-balanced account shows that while the program has helped many contestants envision futures beyond their hometowns, it has always had unsavory aspects at odds with its organizers’ efforts to invest it with a wholesome image. The most egregious of these, formally adopted in 1940 and in effect until the 1950s, required contestants to be “in good health and of the white race.” Fresh troubles hit in later decades as feminists’ protests and expanding women’s rights made the program look out of touch. Organizers tried to adapt by killing the swimsuit competition (2018) and having each contestant choose a “social issues platform” to promote (1990). Still, the TV ratings tanked, the number of entrants plunged, and the pageant CEO was forced out after emails surfaced showing that he had “slut-shamed” contestants. Perhaps the most disturbing fact in this book is that since 2007, entrants have had to engage in what Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, calls “pay to play.” Each contestant “must raise a minimum amount—by soliciting donations—to compete,” and while some of the proceeds go to children’s hospitals, much of it goes to pageant scholarships, so that “contestants themselves have funded 85 percent of Miss America’s scholarships.” Mifflin relates all of this without descending into ridicule or screed and with a keen sympathy for both the costs and benefits to entrants. Whether fans or foes of Miss America, few readers will see the pageant in the same way after finishing this book.

A cleareyed look at an iconic beauty pageant and its efforts to stave off irrelevance.

(16-page color insert)