Reviews > Culture

There she isn't

Culture | The problem with beauty pageants is not the beauty part

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

"There are two reasons why the Miss America Pageant still exists," reads a letter in the September 13 TV Guide. "One is to give millions of men a few hours to imagine themselves in bed with 51 different beautiful women. The other is to make certain women realize that it will never be enough to just be intelligent."

Alas, because the writer of this letter is herself a lass, one doubts her beauty and intelligence both. Beautiful women, after all, seldom object to the public celebration of female beauty, and intelligent women seldom split their infinitives. All kidding aside, her last sentence would still rankle: Since when has "just" being intelligent ever been enough?

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Against intelligence untouched by such fruit, however, there are 10 laws. Sooner or later, intelligence minus love results in theft, lying, murder, and every other sin prohibited by the Decalogue.

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So by withholding its honors from young women with bad reputations, the Miss America Pageant upholds a biblical standard. And by insisting on an objective standard of beauty, it not only holds the line on nose rings and tattoos but also strengthens the incarnational idea that flesh can both give shape to and be shaped by the spirit.

This year's pageant generated headlines for its first-ever bikini allowance. But in a TV environment in which even nudity has become accepted, the "unofficial" segments were most revealing. Right before the ads, viewers saw pre-taped footage of the contestants chatting among themselves about everything from taxpayer-funded single-sex military schools (Miss Someone was against them) to the potential of women (Miss Someone Else insisted that women "can do anything they want to").

Then there were the tantalizing excerpts of the no-holds-barred interview to which each contestant was subjected before the telecast. "I was very much against it until my grandmother got sick," "I think it's really sad," "I am pro-life," and "Yes" were the answers given by various young ladies to the questions "What do you think of legalized marijuana for the terminally ill?," "What do you think of your state's pro-homosexual-marriage laws?," "What do you think about abortion?," and "Have you ever been drunk?," respectively.

Most revealing, however, were the "platforms" that the finalists pledged to advance should they win, especially the platform of the eventual winner, Miss Illinois, Kate Shindle: "AIDS Prevention."

"She favors giving out condoms in high schools but opposes providing needles to addicts," reported the Associated Press. "[W]hile Shindle said abstinence is the only foolproof method of prevention, she acknowledged that it may not be realistic for teen-agers." Miss Shindle was one of those who chose the two-piece swimsuit option, and she was similarly up-to-date in getting embroiled in a controversy as soon as she was crowned-her father turned out to have been a past member of the pageant's board of directors.

But by choosing a Miss America committed to advancing the lie that teen-agers cannot behave as they should, the pageant may have temporarily silenced its liberal critics. Time will tell, however, whether such approval will turn out to have been worth the birthright of the pageant and the culture it represents.

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