Goldberg: Taking the ‘beauty’ out of beauty pageants (column)
The Miss America Organization announced last week that it would no longer judge women on their “outward physical appearance.” To that end, the swimsuit competition is gone. “We are no longer a pageant,” Gretchen Carlson, the group’s head, explained. “Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment.”
Before I go on, let me confess my shameful secret: I like looking at really beautiful women, including when they wear bikinis.
It feels so good to finally say that out loud for all to hear.
Still, I never liked beauty pageants very much. I find the ones for little girls to be particularly creepy. Childhood is a precious and finite resource. Once you lose it, it’s gone forever. Teaching little girls to obsess over hair and makeup and sexualize their appearance leaves me cold.
But that wasn’t my complaint about the adult pageants. They always seemed a bit condescending and demeaning to me, but not for the reasons you always hear. It never really bothered me that traditional beauty pageants “objectify” women.
In case you hadn’t noticed, physical beauty is a huge part of our economy and our culture. And before you go on about this showing how sexist or “lookist” American society is, physical beauty is a huge part of literally every culture on earth and has been for all time. Notions of beauty are fluid, sure, but the interest in beauty — or desirability — itself is an expression of human nature.
Can it go too far? Absolutely. Can you get rid of it? Nope.
Moreover, this is not because it’s a “man’s world.” The glossy women’s magazines are run by women and read by women. The beauty industry is valued at more than $400 billion, and the average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products over her lifetime.
Now, some feminists might claim this is because the patriarchy imposes norms and standards that women feel compelled to follow to get ahead in business and society. I guess there’s some truth to this to the extent that many women want to be attractive to men. But guess what? That’s always been true everywhere. It’s also true that many men want to be attractive to women. If you have a problem with that, then take it up with Darwin.
Moreover, women are more liberated from traditional roles and stereotypes than ever before. It doesn’t seem as if interest in beauty, fashion and fitness has declined in the process, does it?
The point I’m getting at is that beauty pageants are competitions over who is the most beautiful of the bunch. The effort to turn beauty pageant contestants into public philosophers or would-be stateswomen always struck me as not only unfair but occasionally cruel. No one asks bodybuilders how they would bring about world peace. Hell, I offer my opinions for a living and I’ve never been asked that question.
Contestants on “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “American Ninja Warrior,” “Top Chef,” “Shark Tank” and “America’s Next Top Model,” not to mention Olympic athletes, hope to be the best at what they’re there for. They aren’t graded on how they answer questions about the Mueller investigation or the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, as happened at the Miss America pageant last year.
The expectation that these women must answer such questions always seemed like a kind of insecure overcompensation that often bled into forced virtue-signaling. Even the talent competition implied unease with the whole premise of the pageant. “See, we’re not just pretty faces. We can say smart things and do cool stuff like ventriloquist acts and wicked xylophone recitals.”
But at least the talent and Q&A stuff amounted to an effort to battle against the stereotype that beauty queens — and beautiful women generally — are just airheads.
What stereotype is Miss America competing against now?
According to the Miss America Organization, the new mission statement is: “To prepare great women for the world and to prepare the world for great women.”
“We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues,” Carlson said.
In other words, they want to prove that women — attractive or, presumably, otherwise — can be smart, confident activists and leaders. Did we not know this already?
Why not just call it the Woke Olympics and be done with it? It might make a great radio show.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @JonahNRO.
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