an American tradition that compels millions of families to gather
‘round the tube and root for their favorite contestant each
year. Families watch
as 51 women, one from each state (and Washington D.C.), parade
in evening gowns, bathing suits, and participate in a “talent”
contest. Indeed, as some
children aspire to be sports and movie stars, this annual event
inspires 10,000 young women to enter 1200 state and local beauty
pageants each year in the hopes of becoming Miss America. Like the Super Bowl and the Emmys, the contest
has become part of America’s mythological consciousness, a point
of pride and societal longing.
feminists and liberals find this annual ritual somewhat outdated,
it was conservatives who first objected to the contest when
a group of Atlantic City businessmen dreamed it up in the 1920s. After all, women in bathing suits in Atlantic
City were hardly role models for the American woman. Although protests shut the procession down in
the late ’20s, the profitable contest made a comeback during
the Depression. While
the pageant continued to prosper and even gained respectability,
it wasn’t until 1954 that Miss America became a national event.
Broadcast on television before 27 million viewers, the
contest quickly became an American pastime.
changes marked the pageant’s seventy-year history.
In the ’20s Lenora Slaughter instituted rules designed
to legitimize the pageant, requiring all contestants to be between
18 and 25 (the winner of the first contest, Margaret Gorman,
was 16), and accompanied by a chaperon at all times. More controversially, all contestants would
be required to be “of the white race.”
Miss America distanced itself from being primarily a
beauty contest by offering scholarships (it continues to be
the largest scholarship organization for women).
Eventually winners would be crowned while wearing an
evening gown, not a swimsuit, and many winners would choose
to speak openly on social issues.
these changes, the contest has often fallen behind the times.
When women began to wear mini skirts and express their
sexual freedom in the late ’60s, the pageant continued to front
the ideal woman as the happy homemaker. In 1968, a group calling itself the New York
Radical Woman protested the contest, while African Americans
staged their own pageant several blocks away.
Protests, however, were the least of the pageant’s problems. Miss America’s ratings fell throughout the ’70s
and major supporters
like Pepsi withdrew their support.
It was only when the first African American was crowned
Miss America of 1984 that the contest seemed to catch up with
director Lisa Ades says, “Almost every American has seen the
Miss America Pageant at some point in their lives, but few really
know anything about it.” Numerous
film clips take the viewer back to the early days of the contest,
to Miss America’s first black & white TV broadcast, and
to the gaudy clothing styles of the ’70s.
Interviews with former Miss Americas like Bess Myerson
(the first and only Jewish Miss America), along with commentary
by social critics like Gloria Steinem, add depth and insight
to the program. Whether
one watches the annual event religiously or avoids it like the
plague, Miss America offers a fun overview of the pageant
that has lodged itself firmly in the psyche of the American
D. Lankford, Jr.
Experience will broadcast Miss America at 9 PM on
Lesli Klainberg Producer
Michelle Ferrari Writer
Toby Shimin Editor
Buddy Squires Cinematography
Peter Nelson Cinematography
Douglas Cuomo Composer
Cherry Jones Narrator