Opinion

Let's not kid ourselves: Miss America dropping its swimsuit competition was a business decision

The kind of objectification available to men during the heydey of Miss America was nowhere near comparable to that which exists today. We have access to women's bodies at our fingertips, so who needs a swimsuit competition?

The objectification of women is not suddenly over. It's just tougher to make money with overt, old-school ways

The kind of objectification available to men during the heydey of Miss America was nowhere near comparable to that which exists today. We have access to women's bodies at our fingertips, so who needs a swimsuit competition? (Wayne Parry/Associated Press)

On Tuesday morning, the Miss America Organization announced what it is calling "Miss America 2.0:" an "inclusive," "transparent" and "empowering" way forward that will not include a swimsuit competition.

"We're changing out of our swimsuits and into a whole new era #byebyebikini," Cara Mund, Miss America 2018, tweeted.

Nearly 50 years ago exactly, feminists took to the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest Miss America — a demonstration that earned them the "bra-burner" moniker that stuck with them for decades, despite the fact that no bras were actually burned.

Rather, women threw "instruments of female torture" — high heels, corsets, makeup and, yes, bras — as well as copies of Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies' Home Journal into the trash. In their press release for the protest, organizers described the image of Miss America as "an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us."  

To them, and to many of their supporters, Miss America propagated the notion of females as pretty things to be looked at, offering them up in shiny packages, to be evaluated based on their looks and ability to properly perform femininity. Nevertheless, the pageant carried on almost entirely as it always had from then on.

In recent years, however, the pageant has tried to shed its sexist reputation. The Miss America Organization is now under mostly female leadership, and Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the late Fox CEO Roger Ailes last year, was made chair of the board following a scandal in which leaked emails showed board members and executives making misogynistic comments about former contestants.

But the news of the elimination of the swimsuit competition is perhaps its greatest move to enter something resembling the current (or past) century.

"We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition. We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance," Carlson, who was crowned Miss America in 1989, said on Good Morning America. "We are moving it forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution."

"We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance," Carlson said during a recent television appearance. (Andy Kropa/Invision/Associated Press)

The practice of evaluating women based on their appearances is by no means limited to the Miss America stage, but it is arguably one of the places where it is most overt. The swimsuit competition has seen woman after woman parade sexily across the stage in platform heels, drenched in bronzer, while a panel of judges scores her appearance.

The claim that Miss America is in fact a "scholarship competition" was always difficult a sell when juxtaposed with the procession of bikinied contestants. But even the evening gown portion of the competition — which, according to organizers, will now be "revamped" so women will be judged based on "what comes out of their mouth[s]," rather than only their looks — has been about who best embodies the correct poise and presentation, and not really about who can offer the best solution to conflict in the Middle East in 35 seconds.  

The changes announced this week have been attributed to the #MeToo movement and ongoing criticisms of a culture wherein sexual harassment and assault have been normalized for far too long. And the fact that the Miss America pageant — an event that began back in 1921 as a contest to find "The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America" — is eschewing these sexist practices seems positive. But to chalk these changes up to a feminist rejection of objectification is short-sighted.

Alternative entertainment

Miss America has declined in popularity since the 1980s, though objectifying women has not. The porn industry, for example, generates more revenue than CBS, NBC and ABC combined, and more than all major sports franchises. Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter together.

The kind of objectification available to men during the heydey of Miss America was nowhere near comparable to that which exists today. We have access to women's bodies at our fingertips, performing in any way we can possibly imagine, at any given moment. With all of that available, who needs a swimsuit competition?

Movies, TV, pop music, and advertising traffic in the sexualized bodies of women, and despite the endless flood of actresses who have, of late, come out with stories of sexual harassment and assault in the industry, there have been few calls to curb that trend.

The reason is simple, and points directly to demand and profit. Industries will provide what their customers want if it ensures that they can make money. Miss America was no longer growing from their old-school beauty contest, but couldn't justify further overt displays of sexism or compete with Hollywood and a multi-billion dollar porn industry. So, they chose another direction. Even Carlson herself pointed out that she expected there to be "an influx of companies that are interested in sponsoring us now."

An end to Miss America as we know it is undoubtedly a good thing, but let's not kid ourselves. The objectification of women remains more profitable than ever.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current, www.feministcurrent.com

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