For the longest time, I deluded myself into thinking that the only difference between me and a Miss America hopeful was the fact that I wore glasses.
Actually, I did not wear “glasses.” I wore a portable version of the Hubble Telescope. For this reason, and this reason alone, it was clear to my adolescent self that the only aisle I’d likely be strolling down was the one at the Penn Fruit. But come every Labor Day, I’d suspend reality for a few blessed hours and mentally substitute my face (including all four of my eyes) for that of the newly crowned Queen of All That Mattered.
That’s why I made early plans to sit in front of the television on Sunday to watch some lovely example of American exceptionalism take this year’s title. Quick question: Who is the reigning Miss? I’m waiting. Still waiting . . .
Thought so. I didn’t know, either, until I Googled her. This is probably because the former Miss Wisconsin, Laura Kaeppler, was crowned in some backwater town thousands of miles from Atlantic City. (OK, Las Vegas.) Moving the pageant from its rightful home by the crystal blue sea was akin to updating the Hollywood sign, and misspelling it. Changes to beloved traditions are not always good.
That is one reason I so looked forward to this past weekend’s edition of the annual event. It’s a sweet reminder of the late summer days of my childhood when, while knowing in some deep place that I would never be rewarded for my beauty or grace, I could nonetheless borrow the dreams of others.
And now that it’s back on the Boardwalk, the significance of the pageant is even more compelling to a 51-year-old woman who could probably be the (glamorously young) grandmother to some of the contestants. Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, and he has been proven wrong time after time. You can most certainly go home again if the terrain of that native land is impressed firmly on your memory.
So tuning in on Sunday meant I’d be traveling back to a place where a chubby-and-bespectacled kid could entertain the possibility of a kind of success that had nothing to do with her overworked brain.
That’s not to say that the contestants were ever one-dimensional Barbie dolls like their Stepford Sisters in the USA pageant. Miss America was always smarter, more articulate, and more elegant than the other examples of homegrown pulchritude. She was also classier. If USA was Marilyn Monroe with her overt sexuality and increasingly improbable bosom, America was Grace Kelly.
Miss America also had to have a “talent.” Today, some females think that it is enough to gyrate their buttocks in front of a rapt audience to demonstrate how gifted they are. As Billy Ray’s little girl taught us earlier this summer, sluts come in all shapes and sizes, and acting like a lady is one of those ancient tribal traditions that have become optional, like good hygiene.
Not so Miss America. Not only is she lovely to behold, she has a way with words, with music, with tripping the light fantastic, or doing any number of things that require something more than a dedicated client list.
It is true that this year’s slew of contestants contained a few notable surprises, like lovely Miss Kansas who sports two tattoos on her well-toned torso. Given the content of the body art, including the insignia of the Army Dental Corps on her shoulder, I don’t think Princess Grace would be sniffing in derision. Neither would my father, God rest his soul, who was a proud vet.
This is just one example of how the pageant has evolved with time, but still represents the best of what we as American women have to offer.
Unfortunately, it was always common in some quarters to criticize Miss America. As Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News rightly noted in a recent column, women like Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem liked to dismiss the contestants as victims of a patriarchal society. Apparently, the right to choose didn’t include choosing pageants.
I never understood that tendency among certain sisters to demand this rejection of aesthetics. As a freshman at Bryn Mawr, there was the unspoken belief that a woman’s attractiveness was inversely related to her IQ. From personal observation, there were a lot of gals with high IQs on that campus.
Fortunately, while the feminists might fume, most Americans welcome the chance to cheer on women with brains, beauty and a well-toned booty. We see nothing strange in someone who can twirl a baton, present a blueprint for world peace and ace her MCATs all at the same time.
To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, it’s good that men still make passes at girls who wear sashes. It’s also instructive to remember that beauty queens can go on to do exceptional things, like running for vice president.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.