Miss America, Miss Swans and Misleading Promises
by Jan Baughman

It was finally time for the Miss America Pageant and Miss Swans and I headed for Atlanta (see my August 31 commentary). It was obvious from the minute we stepped off the plane that the Pageant officials were hoping that by talking enough about the new progressiveness it would become a reality. There was so much talk of "choice" that we could have been at a pro-abortion rally. However, sponsors speak louder than words and we were hounded by Clairol reps giving out free samples of hair dye and Hoover vacuum people promising that their products will improve our quality of life.

Miss Swans wasn't the least bit intimidated by the other contestants; they were not very attractive, had bad hair, strange makeup and no talent. Most were majoring in music, education or broadcast journalism and what they lacked in looks they didn't make up for with depth. We made it through the first week feeling rather confident; in fact, superior. Miss Swans tried to keep a low profile and blend in with the other girls but it was taking a toll on her. She made an effort to participate in discussions on the proper way to wear a tiara and the best heel height for accentuating the calves, but all the while she was focusing on the question and answer portion of the Pageant, when she would demonstrate her intellect and clench the title.

Yet all of the training and practicing we had done slipped right down the drain on day one of the rehearsals during the practice for the swimsuit competition. Miss Swans lost her concentration and tripped down the steps and off the stage into a cameraman, taking Miss North Dakota with her. Her confidence was a bit shaken, and when Miss Swans learned of the silly dance numbers that she had to participate in even if she weren't selected as a finalist and saw the costumes that she was not given a choice but to wear, she came close to withdrawing. I was able to convince her otherwise, given that the preliminary interviews with the judges were the next day and she would get her chance to shine.

We watched the interviews with anticipation, impatiently waiting for Miss Swans to be called. So far, the questions were surprisingly political (though the coverage of this on Pageant night would be decidedly limited): How do you feel about the legalization of marijuana? Do you believe in abortion? Have you ever gotten drunk? Should McVie be sentenced to death? Should homosexual marriage be legalized? Finally Miss Swans was up, and the first question put to her was "What do you believe is the key to success both as a wife and a professional woman?" At least 25 seconds of silence transpired and I hoped desperately that she was formulating a brilliant response that would put the judge in his place. She replied calmly and directly, "a Hoover vacuum cleaner", and left the stage. Later, the Pageant officials took us aside and suggested that perhaps Miss Swans would not be able to participate on show night because of the fall she took in rehearsal.

We watched the Pageant from back stage. The song and dance was the same old message with a different beat; the contestants in their evening gowns demonstrated no freedom of choice but for the color (40% white, 50% black and 10% red). The pointed interview questions by a famous journalist were more like a daytime talk-show discussion than a thesis defense. Only 25% of the contestants exercised their right to wear a two-piece, including the winner, Miss Illinois. Not only did she wear a two-piece; the bottom was more like boxer shorts than a bikini. A bold choice, perhaps, but in the end she was just another pretty face.

All-in-all, it was a good learning experience. Miss Swans came back with a renewed sense of individuality and an even stronger commitment to complete her double Ph.D. in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence. We both learned that society in general and the Miss America Pageant in particular still value a woman's beauty over her intellect. As for me, I got some free vacuum-cleaner bags and filters.

Published September 14, 1997
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