It’s 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.     

If feminists and liberals find this annual ritual somewhat outdated, it was conservatives who first objected to the contest when a group of Atlantic City businessmen dreamed it up in the 1920s.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. 

Numerous 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.

Despite 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 the times.

As 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 consciousness.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

American Experience will broadcast Miss America at 9 PM on January 27.


Lisa Ades           Director & Producer 
Lesli Klainberg    Producer
Michelle Ferrari   Writer
Toby Shimin       Editor
Buddy Squires     Cinematography
Peter Nelson       Cinematography
Douglas Cuomo   Composer
Cherry Jones       Narrator

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