The End of Pageants as we Know Them

Kelly Johnson, Miss Colorado, did not win the 2015 Miss America pageant. And yet, Ms. Johnson, a nurse who works with dementia patients, will be a history-making contestant long after the name and face of the newly-crowned beauty queen have receded into the mists of distant memory (which will likely happen by about Christmas of 2016).

As most people are aware by now, Ms. Johnson did not choose one of the common displays of “talent” for that eponymous section of the competition.  Rather than donning an evening gown to sing opera or play the piano, or a swimsuit-like leotard to twirl a baton or tap dance–appropriately lady-like, or even little-girly displays of ability–Kelly Johnson took a different route.

She put on the clothes she wears every day, and talked about how her work has affected another human being, and how this particular human being has affected her.

I did not watch the competition, but hearing about it, I wanted to see it, so I’ve viewed the video several times. I’m not ashamed to admit it brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. I’ve known too many nurses–through family relationships, socially, and in the up-close-and-personal hospital settings–not to have a deep admiration for the work they do every single day. Vital, life-saving, life-changing work. Work I freely admit I am not strong or smart enough to do.

I’m not sure why an accomplished professional such as Ms. Johnson participated in the pageant circuit, but I don’t join with typical “feminist” objections to her having done so. She’s got at least the minimum academic requirements to exercise her chosen vocation, so a scholarship might not be the big one.  She certainly doesn’t need to affirm that she is a beautiful (physically, mentally, spiritually) woman, because it is evident.

But I am glad she did choose to go as far as the Miss America pageant.  Because Miss America is supposedly about an idealization of women.  One that most won’t be able to attain–the impossibly long legs, perky breasts, cosmetically impeccable skin and teeth, hair done to within dangerous limits before it falls out. Clothing so fantastic it can’t walk down the street or do anything vaguely resembling work.

Ms. Johnson turns that idealization on its head.  It’s still an impossible ideal.  Smart.  Strong. Educated. Compassionate.  Hardworking. Articulate. Confident. Humble. Selfless.

By competing in a pageant, Ms. Johnson has (knowingly and willingly, or otherwise) done more to challenge the value of “beauty pageants” than all the feminist objectors I’ve heard all my life.  She’s given young American women a different, more difficult standard for their dreams and aspirations. Attainable, but not with an army of hairdressers and makeup artists and wardrobe assistants.  More with determination, brains, hard work.

It’s a shame she was not the winner, because, if we need to crown American royalty, if we need someone to be a sort of “brand ambassador” for American women, Ms. Johnson would be the ideal. On the other hand, I’m glad that she will go back, after a time in Atlantic City, to what she does well, to the people who will benefit most from her amazing self:  her patients and the people who love those patients.

Not “winning” the Miss America pageant was predictable in Ms. Johnson’s case.  She participated, by the rules, did something groundbreaking and amazing, and came up short.  That often happens when someone is a bit of a visionary, whether in art, science, religion.  We joke that the “seven last words of the church” are “but we’ve never done it that way.”  Wasn’t it Harry M. Warner who angrily dismissed the possibility of an advance in the cinematic arts with the rhetorical question, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

But Ms. Johnson’s “unsuccessful” bid for Miss America will do more to change the nature of pageants in America than any winner.  And because she did something which presents such a challenge to the ideal of young American womanhood, something very predictable happened.

Nasty, jealous women who cannot hold a candle to her, decided to ridicule her.  The women of ABC’s daytime talk show, The View, did what unimaginative people do when they don’t understand something. They take cheap shots.  They create in-groups of people who meet their expectations, and exclude the person(s) who do not–often, these are based on very superficial criteria, such as who wears the “right” clothes or defines “cool” in a particular way. It’s done to build up some people at the expense of others–and the ones who are being torn down are often the visionaries, the creative geniuses.  Or, in the case of Ms. Johnson, just the people who do amazing, life-saving, socially vital, but un-glamorous work, every single day.

It’s called “female relational aggression” (although females aren’t the only ones who behave this way–it’s just more common than the more physical types of aggression commonly associated with men and boys).  Cheryl Dellasega–a nurse herself–has done exceptional work on this, not just research, but practical work with women and girls.

In more “street” terminology, what the women of The View did was just plain bitchy.  Sure, there have been some halfhearted apologies for what was said.  But I reserve judgment, until the next ground-breaking woman does something that challenges their opinion of the “right” way to participate in an activity.

Miss America is aspirational, and (with good reason) many feminists over the course of my life have questioned whether it sets appropriate aspirations for young women.  But Miss America has not changed very much over the last half century, despite objections from the strong, educated, dedicated women who have criticized it (and other pageants) from the outside.

Ms. Johnson’s amazing monologue, in less than three minutes, has probably done more to change Miss America–even to call into question the integrity and value of pageants in general–than fifty years of feminism.  Because it sets up new aspirations of what young American women should strive to be, and what they can achieve.

Without hairdressers, makeup artists, wardrobe assistants. Just brains, hard work, compassion, strength. And inner and outer beauty that doesn’t need evening gowns and sky-high hairdos to announce itself.

Ms. Johnson didn’t win Miss America 2015.  She won something much bigger.

Beat that, b!+c#e$.

(Full Disclosure:  I have participated in the pageant circuit.  In 1966, I made a spectacularly unsuccessful bid for Little Miss America, and caused my parents great distress when I hid in the ladies’ room immediately prior to the talent competition, where I was meant to recite Ogden Nash’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”)


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