A new and improved Miss America? Hardly

Ball gowns, baton twirling, satin sashes: America's favorite pageant goes retro.

Published December 22, 2005 3:51PM (EST)

Miss America's tiara has grown pretty tarnished over the past few decades. The New York Times reports this morning that since the peak of its popularity in the 1960s, the 85-year-old pageant has fallen sharply in public opinion, despite recent efforts to revamp the program with up-to-the-minute additions like a current events quiz show competition, a casual-wear competition and a "head to head talent contest, [designed] to channel 'American Idol.'"

But lest we declare the pancake-makeup-promoting, swimsuit-and-sash-celebrating extravaganza dead, it seems the old gal still has one more makeover left in her. According to the Times, this year the Miss America Organization has decided to ditch the more intellectual, esteem-building elements of the competition that had slowly been added since 1968, when feminist groups, including New York NOW, first began protesting the event.

The Miss America Organization, in conjunction with Country Music Television (the competition's new cable home), says the changes are part of a plan to give viewers "a more genteel, glamorous competition ... emphasizing evening wear, with sashes bearing state names." According to the Times, "also returning in January -- for the first time since 1974 -- will be Miss Congeniality, an honor bestowed on one of the 52 contestants (representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands) by her peers."

"We want to get the pageant back to the one we most remember from the collective childhood of everyone involved," Brian Philips, executive vice president and general manager of CMT, tells the Times. "Our viewers, Americans, harbor some really intense and deep feelings about the idea of Miss America. We've got to get it right. We've got to make it matter."

Is this Broadsheetress the only one who finds all this retro-woman worship freaking creepy? So maybe the pageant's civics lesson quizzes were cheesy, and still conducted with starched smiles, but at least they represented a nod to the notion that women could compete on a level deeper than debutante decorum. The casual-wear competition might have, as the Times puts it, looked like a beauty queen's "bad idea of casual Friday," but at least it took some time away from the insufferable swimsuit parade. Miss America apologists have long reminded critics that the organization has the longest-running and most generous scholarship program for women in the United States and hailed it as the means by which hundreds of capable young students have been able to attend college debt-free. But what good is that when the role models these young women are asked to emulate are stuck in some 1950s time warp?

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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