Friday, September 17, 2021

On the Miss America email scandal


When I was 12, I used to watch Miss America on TV every year, always hoping that Miss Illinois would win. Without checking the records, I think it seemed she never even made the finals, although at least one Miss Illinois—Kate Shindle in 1998—has won it.

Embed from Getty Images
Kate Shindle, left, crowns the new Miss America on Sept. 19, 1998

Ms Shindle is now a successful actor and singer; she serves as president of the Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing more than 51,000 American stage actors and stage managers. She’s also a published author, who in her book criticized certain business practices of the Miss America Organization, including its decision to pay CEO Sam Haskell a $500,000 consulting fee during a year the organization was more than $400,000 in the red.

The Huffington Post published Thursday an article detailing offensive emails, many of them between Mr Haskell and the lead writer of the Miss America pageant telecast, Lewis Friedman, in which former pageant winners are reduced not just to objects of sexual desire, not just to a pretty face, not just to even bodies, but to body parts.

On TV, with women parading around in formal gowns and, back when I was 12, bathing suits, with close-ups on their faces as they talk about world peace, and with “judges” watching them do hula dances and calling it talent, it’s hard not to see them as objects.

As an adult, I am 100 percent certain I’ve known and worked with women all the former winners of the pageant couldn’t hold a candle to, and, more importantly, who were engaged in important matters in our world that had nothing to do with how they would appear on a TV screen.

Candace Bergen famously said, in the movie Miss Congeniality, something to the effect that it’s not a beauty pageant but a scholarship competition. We give men scholarships, after all, for playing basketball and football, which is no more college-related than expressing an interest in reducing carbon emissions or in inspiring young girls to achieve something.

But in a post-Access Hollywood tape, post-#MeToo world, I have to ask, Are we really wanting a world where sex has no role? As propagators of the human species, we are pretty much biologically programmed to feed our faces and to make babies. All the pageant stuff, all the scholarship, all the sport and music—these can all be reduced to the essential element: long-term happiness, possibly with a special someone, on a healthy planet.

Many people, including author Jennifer Weiner (Hungry Heart) in an op-ed for the New York Times, would have beauty pageants end, and I have to say, I wouldn’t miss them at all. (I wouldn’t really miss football if it were to end, either.) I have always found the talent portions and the scholarship portions vapid and the formal gown and bathing suit competitions to be, well, precisely what they were designed to be. Which is worthless for our happiness.

But historically, Ms Weiner points out that the Miss America pageant was launched in 1921 to extend the summer a little for businesses in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the pageant is put on stage. In other words, business owners wanted to put “femininity” on display to get people to stay in Atlantic City a few weeks more during the summer.

I can’t help but notice the title of Ms Weiner’s book, unintentionally referencing food and romance, two driving forces behind every species on the planet.

But on the other hand, if reality shows like Miss America stay around, it’s not exactly straightforward to reconcile that with what the #MeToo movement has become. We can no more take physical beauty out of a reality show or pageant, which was built with that aspect of our world in its DNA, than we can take dangerous physical action out of a sport that was created on the basis of men banging their heads around on a gridiron.

Will Miss America morph into a show where résumés and research papers are “judged” without any pictures? Probably not, at least not until football starts to look more like chess. Nor do I think people want either of these, because our appearance is part of who we are as well, at least on TV, and physical toughness is just as much a part of football as strategy is.

After the game has been won or the scholarships handed out, though, we are, once again, just people, and we continue to look for the best ways to send our kids to good schools, based on their individual attributes, and raise them right, ensuring the long-term survival of the species. Which does not include the sort of vulgar objectification in Mr Haskell’s email messages. The national organization yesterday broke ties with Mr Haskell, preparing for the way forward.

Rather than denying who we are as a species, we should focus on evolving as a species. It is illogical and inaccurate to deny we have sexual instincts or instincts to eat. But just as we have developed farming, global distribution chains, and other human-specific solution strategies for food, we need to do the same for sex: not try to eliminate it but to put it on a higher plane. That, I hope, will be the lasting change from the #MeToo revolution.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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