Drilling Down Through The Sources

Now, stay with me here….

The Miss America Pageant: Pluralism, Femininity, and Cinderella All in One, written by Elwood Watson and Darcy Elwood, was published in the Journal of Popular Culture (JPC). The JPC is a peer-reviewed academic journal and the official publication of the Popular Culture Association. So why bore you with the beginnings of a research paper? Mostly because it surprised me to find an academic journal that published essays on aspects of pop culture, not something you immediate think is out there.

Also, this is a research blog….sometimes I do research things.

So the article! I bring this one up in specific because it has the most comprehensive overview I’ve come across of America’s largest pageant. It takes the reader through the history of the Miss America Pageant, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Very little is glossed over, and yet is represented in a succinct voice that kept me engaged. What was interesting was that the article managed to focus on the issues of femininity and sexism that has plagued the Miss America Pageant, without invoking an extreme feminist vibe. No bra burnings here! (which didn’t actually happen BTW) It gives insight into the controversies that surround it and the successful (and unsuccessful) solutions that have come. One such issue is the influence of the cosmetic industry on the once make-up free pageant. It cites Rita Freedman’s book, Beauty Bound, where she reveals where Cinderella comes into play. “Hard at work in her clogs, Cinderella was ignored. Transformed by her satins and slippers, she conquered the world” (Freedman 68). What this means is that the pageant grew from celebrating “unadorned” beauty to demanding women “fix” themselves in order to become idealized.

Why We Need Miss America, by Jill Neimark, was published in 1998 in Psychology Today. I point this out mostly because her remarks about the Miss America Pageant’s history, connotations, and her desire to see it ended are near identical to those sentiments today, nearly sixteen years after its publication.

Neimark’s article is cited in the section titled “Moving into the Mainstream,” where Watson and Elwood start to reveal how the Miss America Pageant made steps to break away from the white, middle-class, ultra-conservative traditions. In contrast to the objective, science-y tone of The Miss America Pageant: Pluralism, Femininity, and Cinderella All in One, Neimark’s writing is a bit more…passionate. She out and out calls the Miss America Pageant a “skin show,” and points out that the pageant has been (rightfully) accused of “being lily-white, racist, and pro-military.”

Contrasting the tones each article adopts when speaking on the issues of feminism, racism, and objectification within pageantry, I can see how Watson and Elwood retained the factual evidence of these aspects while filtering out the outrage that Neimark makes no effort to hide. I have to respect Neimark for her ability to articulate the public sentiments in colorful ways without getting too crass, but as a researcher I put more value on the objective look that Watson and Elwood provide. It’s like sitting at a dinner table with a drunk Aunt and the more composed husband and wife across the table. While the aunt makes some good points, her argument is invalidated by the delivery.

Richard Wilk, an anthropology professor at Indiana University, is one of Neimark’s main sources. While she does not cite a work of his directly, instead having direct quotes from what I can assume was a highly entertaining phone conversation, Wilk has written about his views on pageants. His article, Miss World Belize: Globalism, Localism and The Political Economy of Beauty, is a middle ground between Neimark, and Watson and Elwood. His is a more personal narrative of his introduction to pageants in Belize. He revels that the Miss America Pageant “is an archetype and model for most national competitions in the world, which are now usually local franchises of the Miss Universe or Miss World corporations, profit making concerns owned and operated in the United States and England” (Wilk).

It’s important to note that, while Wilk does make the point that there can be no objective judgment of beauty, he takes a look at how such standards change from culture to culture. This allows him to retain an objective tone towards the issues of objectification of women and the effects beauty standards have on women emotionally and socially.

Do I have a point with all this?

I return to the metaphorical dinner table, now complete with intoxicated aunt, the dry intellectual husband and wife, and the slightly eccentric cousin. Whether it’s politics or pageantry (or both, with Wilks in the mix) there are bound to be mixed feelings.


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