Pageant tightens grip on its ideals

September 17, 1999|By Susan Reimer

BEFORE WE GET to today's topic -- the controversy about what constitutes a truly "ideal" Miss America -- a few disclosures:

I once rode in a parade on the boot of a convertible, wearing an evening gown and waving a white-gloved hand. It was my senior year in high school, and I was a finalist in a local Junior Miss Pageant.

(I know what you are thinking, but it was a teacher's idea, and nobody was more surprised than I was.)

Let me also say that I once wrote a front-page newspaper story revealing that the reigning Miss America had used birth control pills, spent weekends with her boyfriend in another city and passed out copies of a recipe for marijuana brownies.

This was at the student newspaper at Ohio University, and Laurel Lea Schaefer, an alumna, had just been crowned in Atlantic City and was returning to her alma mater for an appearance that day. My story was in response to her comments, made on national television, that she never wore jeans, didn't believe in pre-marital sex and thought drug use was the scourge of youth.

(I was unable to find witnesses who could place her in jeans.)

That said, let me also say that when it was suggested that I write about the current Miss America flap -- suggested rule changes that would allow contestants to be divorced or to have had an abortion -- my eyes rolled so far back in my head that they are still there.

So a stupid pageant changes its stupid rules and then reverses itself, stupidly. Aren't we, like, so-o-o-o way past this?

For almost 50 years, Miss America contestants had to sign a pledge vowing they've never been married or pregnant -- a rule enacted after Miss America 1949, Jacque Mercer, was married and divorced during her reign.

The new rules would have softened the pledge to say "I am unmarried" and "I am not pregnant and I am not the natural or adoptive parent of any child."

It seems that Robert Beck, the first-year president and CEO of the Miss America Organization, feared that Miss America's unspoken virginal requirement might be in violation of the anti-discrimination laws of New Jersey, the pageant's host state.

In a move that only a lawyer could love, the new guy jammed the rule changes down the throat of his executive committee, only to have the powerful state pag- eant directors go crazy and then to court to stop him.

(Talk about your litigious society. One can only wonder how Judy Sheindlin, television's "Judge Judy" and author of "Beauty Fades, Dumb is Forever," would rule on this one. She happens to be one of the judges at the Miss America finals tomorrow night.)

Anyway, the rule changes are on hold as divorcees between the ages of 17 and 24 wait on pins and needles and anti-abortionists turn their attention toward Atlantic City instead of the Supreme Court building.

Two-piece bathing suits, pop music groups, street-style dance numbers and Donny and Marie Osmond as hosts (she's divorced, by the way) apparently are not enough to capture the viewership of the younger demographic the pageant seeks as it prepares to crown Miss America 2000 tomor- row night on ABC, beginning at a family-friendlier 8 p.m.

While failed marriages and unplanned pregnancies may give the pageant just the soap-opera zing it needs to get those free-spending teens and 20-somethings to give up a Saturday night to watch a bunch of young women sing opera and talk about how they would dedicate their yearlong reigns to AIDS, homelessness or adult illiteracy, it has traditionalists in a lather.

Miss America, like the song says, is somebody's idea of an "ideal," and this new inclusiveness would include women who might be a little more worldly than those people like their ideals to be.

"Whose idea of an ideal is it? A man's or a woman's?" asks Deborah Tolman, a psychologist and senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College who is a national authority on adolescent female sexuality.

"Is this about tradition, or is it about virgins?" Tolman asks.

"This is like when they say Miss America isn't about beauty, it is about scholarships. That doesn't ring true because the fact is, most people who earn scholarships don't have to stand up in front of someone wearing a bathing suit."

Likewise, when traditionalists say they want Miss America to continue to be someone young girls can revere and aspire to be, what they are really saying is they want someone who is innocent and pure.

"This is about controlling the sexuality of female adolescents," Tolman says.

Says Leslie Jane Seymour, editor of Redbook magazine: "They stopped just short of saying she still has to be a virgin.

"This is the reason Miss America seems so antiquated," she continues. "They made the changes because they wanted more people to pay attention and then they flip-flopped. They should have stuck with the changes because this is exactly the reason no one is paying attention.

"It's sad, really. What is their message?"

Their message is pretty clear to me. We like our beautiful women to be sex objects, not sexually active. They can be the focus of desire, but they should not feel desire. They are ideal, but somebody else sets the standards.

And, good grief, don't change those standards.

"We tell young women we want them to be all that they can be, that they are not just their bodies, and then we give them the message that we want them to be pure and virginal," says Deborah Roffman, who teaches human sexuality in several Baltimore private schools.

"We are still telling our girls that what they do sexually determines how we see their character," Roffman says. "These are mixed messages on top of mixed messages."

Thirty years after a brash collegiate feminist pasted Miss America with her own hypocrisy, we are still saying that sexual abstinence is the only acceptable behavior for young women.

The problem isn't that this silly pageant is stuck in the past.

The problem is this country is stuck there, too.

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