You are the author of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. What led to your interest in beauty pageants?
I have never competed in a beauty pageant… But my mother was Miss America 1970. So you could say pageants are in my DNA. More recently a former student of mine became Miss America 2018 (Cara Mund, Brown University ’16). As an insider/outsider, and an active feminist, I realized that there was a much more complicated story to tell about beauty pageants that I was uniquely positioned to write.
You describe beauty pageants as an empowering feminist tradition. How so?
It surprises a lot of people to mix feminism and beauty pageants because of the strong feminist critiques of them. But I’ll give you two examples of how pageants can empower women in unexpected ways, both related to Miss America. At the first Miss America Pageant it is true that those eight women were judged based on their looks and bodies. But at the time a woman who showed her body in public was a bit outré, let alone in a bathing suit! But they helped pave the way for today’s females who choose to wear bikinis on the Jersey Shore.
Another example is the scholarship portion, which was introduced in 1944. Winners were able to use these funds to pursue a degree, but again this was forward thinking. In 1940, only about 5% of eligible women had completed a four-year college degree, but here was an organization rewarding women with funds to do just that.
You also connect pageants to politics. Please explain.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted (some) women the right to vote—the first widespread acceptance of women into the American political system. If you have ever wondered where pageant sashes came from, look to the suffragists who popularized them during marches!
Today, of course, we have a President who used to own the Miss Universe/USA pageant, but we also have many pageant winners who have won elected office. For example, in this current cycle two former Miss Hawaiis are running for state legislature, along with a former Miss New Mexico, who is already the Majority Floor Leader there. Today’s beauty pageants help develop some of the skills necessary in today’s political world—like giving a great media soundbite or having a platform issues and speech—that are transferable.
Miss America celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Will it be around another 100 years? Should it be? What will it look like then?
I think beauty pageants will still be around—they have been around in some form for a very long time—but whether or not Miss America specifically will be I’m less sure about. I do think the current Miss America will last for the next several decades as so many people remain committed to it, although I am not so sure it could or should keep its current form of a one-off two-hour television special on network television. 100 years ago, I don’t think anyone could have envisioned Instagram, but I’m guessing personalized media platforms of some shape will play a role!
What other resources do you recommend for those interested in learning more about pageants and/or feminism in the US?
If people want more after reading Here She Is, and there is always more of course, I recommend some documentaries. PBS is always a leader here. They did a 2002 American Experience episode on Miss America, which is very well done, and this year American Experience did a two-part focus on the 19th amendment. For pageants other than Miss America I recommend HBO documentaries like Miss You Can Do It and Living Dolls, along with independent films that focus on specific pageants like Miss Navajo and The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania.
Connect with Hilary Levey Friedman:
Contact form: https://hilaryleveyfriedman.com/contact
Book: Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America
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Hilary Levey Friedman is the author of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. She is a sociologist at Brown University, where she has taught a popular course titled “Beauty Pageants in American Society.” She is a leading researcher in pageantry, merging her mother’s past experiences as Miss America 1970 with her interests as a glitz- and glamour-loving sometime pageant judge, and a mentor to Miss America 2018. Friedman also serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her first book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, focused on children’s competitive after school activities. For more information, please visit https://hilaryleveyfriedman.com and follow the author on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.