Dignity or Disgrace? Controversy over Miss America

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“There she is, Miss America, . . .“ For years, pageant host Bert Parks belted out those signature lyrics when young women, stunned by the victory of being named Miss America, strolled down the runway with poise as the audience expressed their praise and approval. Park’s iconic rendition of the song is still used today, and Nina Davuluri recently claimed the sparkling tiara with that same melody resounding for her to commence the ritual promenade.

The contest of the Miss America pageant, planned annually by an organization with its namesake, has generated mixed sentiments triggering support and criticism. In recent decades, the hot topic has been about race or ethnicity, and Davuluri, an American of Indian heritage, was the prime focus of both appalling racist commentary and the satisfaction of diversity advocates.

Another major trial has always been at the heart of Miss America. Although barring minorities is no longer enforced, the contest has been for a great part of its history the target of female activism. Women in swimsuits flaunting their physiques and donning posh dresses with slick high heels have indicated for many an objectification of females. The contest has customarily been referred to as the prototype level embodying the ideal woman- an hourglass body, flawless skin, lush hair and a dainty decorum to be executed at all times. Even though the Miss America pageant grants millions of dollars of scholarship money to women, it has yet to shake off its perception as a vilified promoter of reducing female dignity to mere trophy status.

September of 1968 marked a historical event when activists protesting the Miss America pageant mockingly crowned a sheep. It was a famous episode of the Women’s Liberation Movement, in the civil rights era, showing how women in the pageant were no less subjected to livestock treatment. And feminist cries were heard- revealing their recognition to the country and the world of an absurd contest encouraging unattainable beauty standards founded on sexual desires. Even with the disapproval of feminists, many women around the United States on their own accord still pursue the dream of being crowned Miss America.

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Whether men, women or both are blameworthy of driving the measures of femininity, the debate continues in the political arena. More importantly, the dignity of women must be actively addressed, seeking ways to resolve the challenges of women around the globe including the deprivation of quality education, proper healthcare and even their own freedom. It is astonishing how women of the 21st century encounter such hurdles that hinder a life with little chance for hope and happiness.

Fortunately, organizations like the United Nations confront global issues that affect women’s daily lives. Would you like to participate in dialogue and action for the betterment of women? Consider coming to New York City to be a part of the exciting Emerging Leader’s Conference entitled, Wo(men) and Health: Dismantling a Culture of Commodification. Come join young people harmonize in a song for human dignity. Register today!

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By Edward Ablang, a WYA North America member and intern.