Bess Myerson, the one and only Jewish Miss America, was crowned winner in 1945. Jordyn Rozensky’s 2013 JWA blog post, Here She Comes….Miss America, discusses the influence Myerson had on America and on the Jewish community following her big win. Myerson was the first Jewish woman to win the pageant, and she experienced significant antisemitism as a result. Despite these challenges, Myerson channeled her fame into doing good—she became active with the Anti-Defamation League and launched a successful political career. Rozensky commends Myerson for breaking boundaries for Jewish women at the time by winning Miss America. And I agree—major kudos to Myerson for proudly bringing her Judaism into mainstream American culture.
However, there’s one thing that this article doesn’t mention: the feminist controversy over the Miss America pageants themselves.
According to Wikipedia, Bess Myerson’s sister signed her up for the Miss New York pageant without her consent. Myerson’s first reaction to all this? She wanted no part in it, and claimed the whole business was “embarrassing.” I don’t know specifically what she was referring to when she called these beauty pageants embarrassing, but I do know that several aspects of the Miss America pageant stand out to me as embarrassing for society. First, this competition is the epitome of double standards between men and women in our culture because it fosters objectification of women and their bodies. Second, it promotes completely unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies that are impossible to attain.
The Miss America pageant has four components: Artistic Expression (contestants are judged on talent), Presentation and Community Achievement (contestants are given interviews and on-stage questions), Presence and Poise (the evening wear competition), and Lifetime and Fitness (the swimsuit competition). Through these four categories, Miss America promotes the ideal that the “perfect” woman is a stellar opera singer, has donated her life savings to feeding starving babies in developing countries, can confidently strut on live television in a sparkly ball gown and high heels, and has the ideal bikini body, of course!
Thinking about the Miss America pageants and the women that America chooses to represent our national ideal leads me to wonder, why does society have to ask SO MUCH from women? It seems that our culture is never satisfied and continues to demand more and more of this so-called perfect girl or woman.
Twenty-one million viewers tuned in to watch the Miss America competition in the spring of 2015. That’s a lot of people, including a lot of little girls, who more than likely quickly got that sinking feeling, “I am not enough.” Are these women—even Bess Myerson—really positive role models for the young girls of this country? Is this really how we want our female role models to make girls feel?
And how come there isn’t a Miss America equivalent for men? Well, there is a Mister America contest, but it’s not a beauty and talent pageant—it’s simply a weightlifting competition that is not affiliated with Miss America and comes nowhere close in terms of TV ratings. So, why aren’t men held to the same standards as women? Why isn’t there a hugely popular and iconic competition for men where they are judged as to whether or not they have all those seemingly “ideal” attributes? The fact is, double standards are insidiously incorporated into our mainstream, everyday lives, and the Miss America pageant (and lack of a similar Mister America pageant) is perhaps the most obvious example. Furthermore, the objectification of women and women’s bodies that is endorsed by beauty pageants like the Miss America contest is exceedingly harmful for women. Our society’s celebration of the “perfect” woman’s unattainable attributes and its worship of “flawless” female bodies is not something we should be proud of.
This isn’t to say that Miss America hasn’t done any good and that its values haven’t improved over time. When the pageant was first created, the winning prizes were “furs and movie contracts,” but the prizes have long since switched to college scholarships, a far more laudable award. Additionally, many of the winners and contestants are women who I truly commend because they’ve done incredible things for society, are extraordinarily talented, and also have the self-confidence to put themselves out there.
I give Bess Myerson a lot of credit for breaking stereotypes and opening doors for Jews in popular culture. However, when Myerson initially stated that these pageants were an embarrassment, there was more truth to her words than she probably even realized. It’s embarrassing that we allow these pageants to tell girls that nothing they do will ever be enough unless they can do it perfectly, in a bikini, in front of millions of people. It’s just as embarrassing that our country still holds on to deeply ingrained double standards and different expectations for men and women. It’s great that Bess Myerson put Judaism in the spotlight with her Miss America win—but perhaps we should take a step back and consider whether our culture should even have this particular spotlight in the first place?
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Richmond, Abby. "Pageant Problems." 24 February 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/pageant-problems>.