Thursday, January 22, 2009

There she is

Out of professional obligation, I'm watching the genially appalling TLC reality show Miss America: Countdown to the Crown. This is a competition in which one potential beauty queen will get a free pass into the top fifteen in the actual pageant by navigating obstacle courses, making cocktail dresses with glue guns, and doing runway walks.

I have a dog in this fight, because Miss Arkansas is my student. (Go Ashlen!) I don't really have strong opinions about pageants, just vague feminist misgivings. But there is sentiment on my campus against the Miss UCA pageant that feeds into the state competition. Should the university be asking women to display their bodies in a swimsuit-off for a scholarship prize?

What I find interesting in this whole situation is how reality television has regularized the notion of competing in the realm of looks and poise -- a concept that seemed irredeemably marginalized ten or fifteen years ago. What with America's Next Top Model and its ilk, in which women are judged on their ability to look their best in the context of actual professions for which this is a critical job skill, pageants don't seem nearly so retrograde to the general public, I'm betting. What they seem, instead, is old-fashioned -- which is why the Miss America pageant has been adding reality-show frills as fast as they can. It appears much more likely these days that the venerable institution of Miss America can find a home somewhere in between Tyra and True Beauty.

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