Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#52, September 14, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Saturday night, she'll take her final stroll down the runway, and crown her successor: Miss America is gone, long live Miss America.

The Miss America pageant may be the purest corn, a mix of glitz and amateurish performance, but it's our more democratic version of a coronation -- since we do it every year, we increase the number of pretty American girls who can grow up to become the queen.

In 78 years the Miss America pageant has gone from a tawdry girl-watching event to a search for ideal American femininity, with organizers making up rules as they went along. When contestants turned up with husbands, officials started requiring that Miss America be a MISS; when an equestrian candidate landed her horse in the orchestra pit, they ruled "no animals" in talent competitions. (You can guess why flaming batons aren't allowed.)

Pageant officials added layers of respectability over the years. First the organization enlisted the Jaycees of America as sponsors and judges of the local and state events, which meant that only girls much like the Jaycees' own daughters were invited to enter. Should girls with even mildly controversial ideas or behavior somehow make it into the original pool of candidates, interviews by judges at every level almost always screened them out. By making college scholarships the prizes, the judges encouraged earnest young women to enter and discouraged mere bathing beauties with an eye on Hollywood.

During her reign, Miss America will open shopping malls, speak at Rotary luncheons, Moose lodges and VFW conventions, entertain our soldiers overseas, and appear on behalf of charities and other civic good works.

When she does, she will tell the good, civic-minded men and women what they want to hear, and what she genuinely believes: that America's young people share their patriotism, their optimism, their belief in the power of individual effort, and, of course, their faith. There are no atheists in foxholes or in the Miss America contest.

Miss America has changed over time, though, because American society has changed. Since 1984 there have been several black Miss Americas, and contestants of Latino, Native American and Oriental descent. Contestants are now as likely to have been athletes as cheerleaders. While Miss America candidates of the 40's and 50's just wanted to be good wives and mothers, recent contestants want to be good wives and mothers AND anchorwomen, CEOs, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or performers.

Recognizing that celebrity status allows people to advance causes dear to their heart, pageant organizers now expect candidates to have a platform. The hot cause these days is "awareness": of breast cancer, asthma, diabetes, learning disabilities, eating disorders, etc. (I'd love to see one of them campaign for "awareness awareness," but that would require a level of irony wholly absent from these women.)

Judging from previous winners, the new Miss America will probably be a girl from the south or west, where charm is obligatory, and girls are taught early to hide assertiveness behind an impish grin.

All the rules guarantee that contestants will be genuinely nice people, girls who will say with absolute sincerity things like "You have to be kind to people each time you see them because they might not always be there," (Miss Missouri, 1998) and "beauty is how you treat others" (Miss North Carolina, 1998).

Why do some 20 million of us watch the pageant every year? Surely not for the talent competition. It's become somewhat more professional over time, and we probably will never again see a candidate model a dress she made while displaying a picture she painted, but it can still be embarrassingly awful.

Still, we watch it. Could it be because the Miss America pageant is one of the last remaining refuges of good sportsmanship? Athletics have become ever more ruthlessly competitive, and rudeness and vile behavior have become epidemic in sport. But the first runner-up not only kisses the new Miss America and wishes her well -- she means it.

The Miss America pageant is a virtual festival of niceness, and a welcome tonic to our spirits. Enjoy.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing