Who’s (Miss) American?

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Nina Davuluri

With the outrageous social media backlash directed at Miss America winner Nina Davuluri, you would think it was the first time a woman of color took home the tiara. But hatred directed at non-white Miss Americas is nothing new; the history of race exclusion in the contest is an ugly one. It’s just that now, thanks to the presence of Twitter, members of the ignorant knuckle-dragger community can now broadcast their most base thoughts quickly and loudly around the world.

The first people of color to even appear onstage at a Miss America pageant were black dancers in 1923 who masqueraded as slaves for a musical number. In the 1930s, the pageant policies included a Rule Number Seven that required “contestants be of good health and of the white race.” In a further measure of “American-ness,” participants gained extra favor if they were able to trace their ancestral history to the Revolutionary War or the Mayflower.

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Vanessa Williams

Even Bess Myerson, who became the first Jewish American woman to win Miss America in 1945, was heavily pressured to change her last name to the less ethnic-sounding Merrick. But her crowning, which happened soon after the horrors of the Holocaust fully came to light, was seen as an American renunciation of anti-Semitism.

Despite white Christian supremacist roots, the Miss America pageant has had its milestones: This year marks the 30th anniversary of Vanessa Williams becoming the first black woman to wear the crown, and since then 10 other women of color have been named Miss America. Caressa Cameron (2010), Ericka Dunlap (2004), Kimberly Clarice Aiken (1994), Marjorie Vincent (1991) and Debbye Turner (1990) are African American; Erika Harold (2003) was of mixed black and Native American descent; and Angela Perez Baraquio from Hawaii (2001) was the first Asian-American winner. Despite racial progress, there still has never been a Latina Miss America. Nor has a transgender woman ever worn the crown.

When Williams crossed the pageant color line in 1984, her accomplishment was met with hate mail and death threats from racists who felt the crown had been tarnished. Her triumph was also marred by a nude photo scandal that forced her to relinquish her crown to African American runner-up Suzette Charles. The controversy gave rise to a heated public dialogue on the intersection of race, beauty and politics in America, with many suggesting that Williams’ race may have influenced the way she was treated in regards to the photos. Nevertheless, she handled the pressure with poise and became a media darling—arguably the most successful Miss America ever.

Like countless American narratives, the narrative of Miss America has primarily been a white, heteronormative one that reinforces Western standards of beauty. Being Indian American, Davuluri didn’t even fit into the overly simplified black-white binary of race relations, so bigots took the xenophobic route—misidentifying her as an Arab and then calling her a terrorist. “American” is still code for white, and Davuluri’s win further muddled racial identities.

Miss America’s younger, more glam-focused cousin, Miss USA, has fared slightly better in diversity, having named more women-of-color winners from a wider array of backgrounds. But both pageants have failed to recognize the actual diversity in the nation.

Though Miss America is seen as mere prancing and pomp to some—(and has been a longtime source of criticism by feminists, who decry the emphasis on physical beauty over qualities such as intelligence), the title of Miss America carries a lot of  power. The notion of “American” becomes a political minefield for those who don’t match old notions of blonde, blue-eyed, corn-fed U.S. citizens being the only “real” Americans (i.e., the suggestion that Miss Kansas was the contestant that most represented “American values”).

By choosing a Miss America such as Davuluri, who was born to Telugu immigrants and paid homage to her heritage by performing a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest, more visibility is given to the diverse spectrum of “Americans.” Davuluri is a reminder that what’s perceived as American is catching up with the reality being mapped out in families and communities across our country.

Photo of Nina Davuluri courtesy of aleahconnect and photo of Vanessa Williams courtesy of CocoKing88, both via Creative Commons 2.0

 

bb1024300f3f36990f74fab87c359471Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

Comments

  1. Hi Anita, as a longtime reader of Ms. Magazine, I’m a bit frustrated by this post. I’m so glad to see Ms. Magazine addressing the terrible treatment that Nina received this past week and talking openly about the need for more cultural diversity in our conversations about beauty. We still exist in an era where television and film are significantly white centered and we need to be aggressively having these conversations until things change. I agree with you that it’s a powerful statement to see an Indian-American woman wear the crown. I commend you for taking the time to bring the issue to light. However, I’m frustrated and bothered that, in the process, you linked to inaccurate information about the Miss America program and the complex relationship between feminism and the pageant.

    First, the link that you provided in order to criticize the “intelligence” of the Miss America contestants does not showcase Miss America contestants at all. The women featured in that link competed for the Miss USA program, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe.

    The Miss America program and the Miss USA program are not “cousins” at all. They have no relationship to each other despite the public’s consistent confusion between the two. Miss America is a non-profit 501c3 organization run entirely by volunteers in which all the money raised actually goes back to the women. Every ticket sale, every raffle, every sponsor goes back to the women. There are no men taking a profit off of these women. However, the Miss USA organization (along with Teen and Universe) are OWNED by Donald Trump. They are a for-profit organization with a $1,000 entry fee at the state level. There is no scholarship $ awarded and there :are:: men that make a profit off of the women when they compete.

    A significant number of the women who CHOOSE of their own agency to compete for Miss America in 2013 are BRILLIANT women. A significant number of these women have huge career aspirations in business, science, law, medicine, education etc. and are extremely academically motivated and gifted. This is not to degrade the women who CHOOSE to compete for the Miss USA program which is, essentially, a modeling competition as all of these women have digntiy and equal worth. (This is also not to imply that women who choose to be models aren’t smart.) That said, the programs ::do:: have a different focus. The Miss America program is intensely focused on education while the Miss USA program is a for-profit organization that is more of a modeling contract.

    I also struggle here because I think if you are going to link to an article where you imply that feminists (as if that’s one group of people with one viewpoint) have decried the program than it might also be helpful for you to recognize that there are also FEMINISTS who have competed in the program, won titles and believe in the program while maintaining their feminist ideals. And, as you did mention, some of these women are women of color.

    I am a feminist. I love Ms. Magazine. I am pro-choice. I believe strongly in equal rights for all and I believe strongly that our culture embraces a western, white “aryan” standard of beauty. I’m deeply concerned with the exploitation of women in our media. I’m deeply concerned that women are sexualized and male gazed every single day on TV and in film and that we have become so accustomed to it that we barely even blink. I went to law school. I’m a young woman in a male dominant profession and I struggle every day with this. And yes—I competed in the Miss America program and did very well. I have complex feelings about the program. It was a special time in my life that gave me a voice I never would have had otherwise. It introduced me to some of the most powerful, incredible, strong women that I have EVER had the pleasure of knowing. Yet, I personally would have ZERO problem with the program eliminating the swimsuit competition and I will openly say that to people. I do not believe it’s necessary. All that said, when I wore that swimsuit for that very small portion of my “score” I did it of my OWN agency, my OWN choice with my OWN power and for the benefit of NO ONE but myself. I treated it like a fitness competition and I learned more about what my body was capable of and what “health” truly meant than I ever had before and that education has carried me through health problems in the last few years.

    If we are going to talk about the complexity of Miss America, then I think it’s important to actually have the conversation with accurate information and, to be frank, to listen to the women who have actually benefitted from the program. How do they feel and how does their relationship with the program relate to their feminist ideals? Because I see a lot people talking ABOUT these women. But it’s rare that anyone actually ASKS these women—many of whom proudly identify as feminists and are fans of this magazine—how they actually feel.

    Nina has handled the indignities of the last few days with grace. She has been put through more than she deserved to be put through. She’s a beautiflul woman. She’s also a smart, dedicated, talented woman. I imagine she has a lot to offer on what it means to be a feminist woman who chose of her own agency to compete for Miss America. I hope people ask her about it. I also hope that her presence as Miss America this year continues to break down this barrier of what the perception is about what it means to be “American” and that there are women everywhere who can look to her and recognize that our identity as Americans is not dictated by the color of our skin. I can’t wait to see Nina go out there this year and promote this message of diversity and I support her completely.

    Thanks for your time.

  2. There has been a Latina Miss USA (different pageant). Lynda Carter, yes Wonder Woman, is of mixed ethnic background wore the crown in 1972. Her mother was Mexican American and her father was Anglo American.

  3. radical-dyke says:

    I would hardly call being a victim of the male gaze a triumph. It is wrong that women are being taught its okay for men to judge their bodies so harshly and reward the one who is most submissive to men. It well known many institutions need to include more women of color, but beauty agents are sexist by nature and should be abolished.

  4. Anita Little article on Miss America and a reply by Mary has shown me a new America, me being an Indian.2110 hrs now at Madison WI. I will be back to my country more enlightened now.Thanking you ladies and msmagagine.com. vmarrivada@gmail.com.

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