Suddenly Miss America seems relevant again. The nearly 100-year-old program made headlines this week with the announcement, accompanied by the hashtag #byebyebikini, that the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition are no more.
But don’t be fooled: Miss America is still very much on life support.
In a world of reality TV and social media celebrities, it’s hard for Miss America to break through the noise. On top of that, since 1968, when one of the foundational protests of the women’s rights movement occurred against the pageant in Atlantic City, Miss America has struggled to prove its relevance in a world where women lead in business, academia, politics, the law, medicine, and more.
Yet all hope is not lost for our patient. As a pageant expert, I have a prescription based on Miss America’s own formula.
The Miss America crown has four points, each with a meaning: style, service, scholarship, and success. Focusing on these offers a path forward for the grande dame of pageantry.
Wearing six-inch heels in a bikini is not the most stylish of choices. But what Miss America evolved to represent—a healthy lifestyle based on eating well and exercising—is still important. Instead of dropping the competition’s focus on physical appearance altogether, Miss America should retain a fitness component. This might look like what many teen pageants (fitness routines with burpees and pushups) or international pageants like Miss World (an intense obstacle course that resembles a Spartan Race) feature.
Each contestant must have a personal platform that focuses on a national issue of concern. Winners’ platforms have ranged from HIV/AIDS education to anti-bullying to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Many state winners have done substantial work on their platforms, testifying before Congress and raising a great deal of money. The pageant should value these achievements more highly in scoring.
Miss America is the largest source of educational funds to women in the U.S. Yet not all contestants use their funds for educational purposes. Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri said she planned to attend medical school, but she now hosts a TV show. Her successor, 2015 winner Kira Kazantsev, said she planned to attend law school, but she is currently a motivational speaker.
To hold contestants accountable for their scholarship money, the organization should have them explain precisely how they will use their funds. And in order to receive their full award, winners should be required to return to the competition in future years to speak about what they are doing with their money. This would help reinforce the perception that the pageant is serious about empowering women.
The popular pageant wisdom is that Miss America is won or lost in the interview room. Each contestant is grilled before a panel of judges for 10 minutes in the days before the televised broadcast. The American public never really sees the substance from those interviews, other than silly clips like a contestant burping the alphabet. To demonstrate how successful contestants have been, and can be, at least three minutes from those interviews should be shown for the top five finalists on the television broadcast.
Staying a queen
Despite its new focus on scholarship and success, Miss America has always been about exaggerated femininity. Many tune in for the rhinestones, the glitz, the glamour. To stay as relevant as possible—especially on network TV, which is essential to keep scholarship awards high—Miss America shouldn’t be afraid to still wear false eyelashes. But it needs to be more mindful of its real purpose—changing the world one point of the crown at a time.
Hilary Levey Friedman teaches in the education department at Brown University. She is currently working on a book about the links between pageantry and American femininity, which will be published in 2020.