One big takeaway for me from competing in the 2014 Miss America pageant is that there are only a few things audiences love more than seeing primped and polished women strutting in swimsuits. One of them is primped and polished women attempting, in the onstage interview portion of the competition, to answer spontaneous questions that even members of Congress, scholars at think tanks, and US presidents can’t answer.
The most recent Miss America pageant brought all of this back to me, when judge Jess Cagle of People magazine asked Miss Texas, Margana Wood, to comment on President Trump’s response to last month’s deadly events in Charlottesville.
She didn’t hesitate — she answered with something even President Trump would not say, stating that white supremacists were responsible and that it was an act of terrorism. “And I think that President Donald Trump should have made a statement earlier addressing the fact, and making sure all Americans feel safe in this country, that is the number one issue right now.” Oh, and she did all this in 15 seconds.
The amazement Miss Texas generated in delivering a cogent answer might have seemed like a win for pageant women in general, another much-needed example of how women can have equal parts intelligence and beauty. But it also sparked some patronizing commentary — a tone of surprise that a Southern belle who won the swimsuit award also reads the news and can express her opinions effectively.
She — like all of us who have made it to the top five — was entirely on her own up on stage. Millions of eyeballs are judging whether you’re smart or dumb while giving an answer in the amount of time it takes for Usain Bolt to complete the 200-meter dash.
Miss America contestants must fit their responses within the remarkably tiny time frame of 20 seconds, all while simultaneously demonstrating every positive characteristic in a Tinder profile; funny, warm, personable, responsible, intelligent, easygoing, fit, cooks well, good with kids, blah blah blah. You’ve also got to smile, suck in your stomach, and look calm and collected on the outside, while on the inside, your adrenalin is charging like you’re dangling off a cliff.
I was in her position four years ago, when I thrillingly also became a Miss America finalist and was prompted for my thoughts on another critical question confronting our nation — whether US intervention in Syria was the right thing to do. I could just as easily been asked whether political wives should stay with a cheating husband, which was an actual question for another finalist.
Though it was the most nerve-racking moment of my life, I said what I thought — that the US needed to act, preferably with the involvement of Congress — and right away, people started pointing to similarities between my answer and Barack Obama’s public statements about whether Congress would let our country defend human rights in the Middle East.
And, to make matters even worse, the next morning I woke up to an article on Buzzfeed’s homepage picking apart my answer. Buzzfeed pointed out that my answers were similar to President Obama’s, though they did credit me with summing up in 17 seconds what it took him 15 minutes to say. Some of the coverage from other outlets, even when they said my answer was good, implied that this was somehow surprising.
Having been on the other side, I can attest that once the question has been asked, only two things happen. The first is actually answering, and the second is hoping your answer isn’t so awful that you go viral for the wrong reasons. It is every contestant’s nightmare to botch it, becoming the latest newsfeed laughingstock, sinking you down into pageant infamy and months of low self-esteem. Hours of mock interviews and keeping up with the news can only defend so far against inexperience and brain fog.
What most viewers don’t realize is that contestants truly receive no warning or heads up about what we’re going to be asked. We don’t get to prepare buzzwords or mull over sound bites in the dressing room. There’s no calling mom and dad to help brainstorm politically correct phrasing.
Even having the smartphone I snuck with me backstage, smuggled in in my bra, would be no help. Some of the collective online reaction to my answer or Margana Wood’s response surely reflects an awareness of just how hard it is to perform under pressure. But it also testifies to enduring and sexist stereotypes about women.
When the Internet goes nuts over a pageant answer, even though I’ve had the experience myself, I’m always amazed how persistent the classic “beautiful but dumb” archetype is, even in the 21st century. It’s reinforced everyday by the imbalance of genders in empowered positions — something I’ve seen firsthand, working in tech in Silicon Valley.
It’s easily imposed on beautiful women because observers can’t resolve their own cognitive dissonance. Not everyone (knowingly) shares the overly simplistic belief that a woman is either prettier than she is smart, or smarter than she is pretty. But too many do.
Whether or not they’re wearing a crown and sash, women across all industries have had to face some kind of preconceived assumptions about them based on their appearance. Pageants have their place as an American cultural tradition dating back to 1921, and I personally look forward to any reminder that intellect and beauty are not mutually exclusive.
The number of people raising their eyebrows at how strong Miss Texas’ answer was shows just how far women still have to go.