So, I have to admit, I always watch Miss America if I track that it’s on. It’s a spectacle of pure schmaltzy Americana that is truly impossible for me to pass up. The combination of fashion (or what passes for it on the pageant circuit), the opportunity for me to make bitchy comments (see previous parenthetical note), and how American women wrestle with their femininity in a decidedly unfeminist contest is like catnip to a girly girl and holder of a sociology degree. This year I had no clue it was on but was just closing the browser window for TV Guide when I saw Miss America pageant in the listings and got it queued up on TiVo just in time.
Of course, this is one of the new and weird Miss America pageants that they have now, where they rejigger the format every year to desperately try and please the audience that’s disappearing or doesn’t even bother to show up in the first place. But if this is a modernized Miss America, it’s just horrible. The music and lighting when they announce the ‘winnowing down’ rounds on the ABC telecast is straight from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The bikini competition (c’mon, none of the all-too-toned girls are gonna hurt their chances and wear a one piece) is sponsored by Speedo — the host mentioned Speedo’s name twice and the bikinis have a Speedo logo on the back of the suit (it’s a small logo, but it’s there).
New to the competition this year (or at least I don’t remember it, and boy do I think I would remember something this awful) was an awkward strutting casual wear competition. The girls start by being lined up and vogueing behind white screens — honest to god, they vogued behind backlit screens — it was so strange and embarassing. Then, one by one as their names were called, each made another quick vogue-y pose and came out on the runway for about 20 seconds like some kind of America’s Next Top Wal-Mart Model. I guess the girls were told to “act more natural” or “be themselves” or something, because they each girl did weird non-pageant-y things like shimmy her boobs or flip her hair with her hand while kicking up a heel to one knee. I mean, no one quite did the Elaine Benes thumbs-and heels-out dancing, but it some of it was really painfully non-choreographed and weird. Accompanying this strange parade were contestant voice-overs telling cute stories about bowling with nephews or how her mom gives her cookbooks as a good luck gift before each pageant.
The swimsuit competition sinks to a new low. Aside from the Speedo (TM) sponsored all-bikini factor (although I think Miss Arkansas would’ve worn a g-string if they would’ve let her), the actual live competition was preceded by five minutes of a pre-show swimsuit “shoot” footage. The girls were poolside, surrounded by candles with toes dipping in the pool water. With the girls smiling seductively, talking about staying in shape, and leaning forward seductively, and the camera monitor visible in some frames, the entire setup looks so much like a Playboy shoot it was very creepy. When the live bathing suit competition finally started, it began with a strange little choreographed dance on stage with all 52 contestants intermixed with more scenes of the pre-recorded stuff from earlier by the pool set to weird clubby rock music. The strutty part of the competition was the standard stuff, girls in bikinis and heels. At least Miss New York was shaped like a real person and walked like a normal person (she actually looked like she enjoyed it and didn’t have that weird plastic smile), but alas didn’t make it into the Top Five so I guess “weird plastic smile” is actually what the judges are looking for.
The evening wear competition was more standard Miss America fare, but In general, I just really lament that some of these women don’t really know the meaning of “formal wear”. Miss Alabama’s idea of formal wear looked like something out of Frederick’s of Hollywood. Yes, I understand that you want to show the judges that you have a well toned body, but isn’t that what the bikini section is for? Her outfit was two pieces and the skirt was slit up to the upper thigh. At least Miss Louisiana was in a dress that looked like something that someone might actually wear to, say, a charity gala (albeit one in New Orleans). Then again, Miss Two Piece Alabama won the formal wear section, so apparently taste isn’t really a factor, it is how much skin you can show, and this is why no one is beating down my door to be a pageant consultant. What really dropped my jaw weren’t the fashion choices, however, but the fact that the show producers played the video clips of the same audio clips that they played during the casual wear competition. This was especially annoying…surely they could’ve figured out getting two different snippets of ‘personality’ from these girls? They sure didn’t seem to repeat any shots of the girls frisking around by the damn candlelit pool for the bikini competition.
On to the more re-vamped portions of the show. The quiz show aspect was added a few years ago and provides some interesting insight into the knowledge of today’s young women. There are only a few questions, but it’s interesting to see what questions they do and don’t get (and which one’s I can and can’t get — it’s not like I got all questions right, either). I really like this addition to the pageant, actually — it’s not subjective judging and it’s a chance for the women to prove their knowledge of American history and current events. I mean, if the top prize is a scholarship, after all, it does seem to make sense that part of it should depend on some actual knowledge.
The biggest change in the pageant this year is that the three runners-up were announced ahead of time and the two finalists went “head-to-head” in talent competition. This provided the dual benefit (from the producers’ perspective) of being able to pretend that talent is one of the most important deciding factors and only having to show the actual talent performance of two of the competitors. Miss Alabama sang (always a popular choice with the judges) and Miss Louisiana did an uneventful tap dance. Miss Alabama eventually won the crown, although she was one of the least dynamic girls there, in my opinion.
In general, I’ll keep watching every year, although I feel the pageant slipping more and more into the morass that’s enveloping TV in general these days. The host was from The Bachelor, and the cheesy dramatic music is sort of dorky but I guess what should I expect… it is still a pageant after all. The swimsuit competition is looking more like Temptation Island, though, and I think the producers are really making a mistake by taking the pageant in that direction. I think classier would definitely go over better and increase viewership and ratings over the long haul. But then again, what do I know? I’m just a viewer, and I watched this year, didn’t I?