Are beauty pageants only skin deep?

Brown University sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, is an expert on pageants and she said they have a complex cultural impact. We talked about her recent book, "Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of The Beauty Pageant in America." 

Donnis: The conventional critique is that beauty pageants are mostly about objectifying women and their bodies. You say that beauty pageants have had a much more complicated cultural impact. How so?

Levey Friedman: Well, when you think about it, the very first beauty contest actually brought women out into the public sphere. Women's bodies. women weren't welcome in public before. And so while it is true, and it's uncomfortably true, sometimes that pageants. not all pageants, but some pageants are about objectifying women's bodies. It also opened the door to women's voices being heard.

Donnis: You grew up as the daughter of Miss America, your mom was chosen as Miss America in 1970. How did that influence your view of pageants and the wider role that they play?

Levey Friedman: I never knew a time when I didn't know what a beauty pageant was. And so I could give you the joking answer, which is true, which is that because mu mom was Miss America, I know how to grow my hair and make it big and wear makeup. Well, the more serious answer is that I've always been a person because I've seen it who's focused on civic engagement, and thinking about helping others. And so I think there are both positive and more complicated lessons that came from that experience that my mom had, it was very much her experience and was not my experience. I have never competed in a beauty pageant, but because I've always had that insider-outsider perspective. I thought that with this book, I could give a different perspective to others as well.

Donnis: How did beauty pageants become a thing of cultural phenomenon in America?

Levey Friedman: Well, most people point to 1921 with the first Miss America, what became known as the first Miss America pageant, but beauty contest had been around before that. So actually PT Barnum started what we now think of as the first commercial beauty contest in the 1850s. He also started baby shows, which we can think of as a form of child beauty pageants. But I would say that Miss America really marked the start of pageants being more fully integrated into the public consciousness. And certainly by the 1950s, when Miss America appeared on television, it was, you know, one of the most popular shows that you could watch, one of the biggest annual events that someone could participate in. Yhat started to change in the 1970s after second-wave feminism, but I think when we really think about P.T. Barnum in the 1850s, we can see how deeply embedded beauty pageant culture is in America.

Donnis: You said a bit earlier how beauty pageants brought women out into the public sphere. And then with second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s, there were protests against beauty pageants, how did the balance of power between beauty pageants and second-wave feminism play out after that?

Levey Friedman: Second-wave feminists really use the popular platform that Miss America had established to amplify their message about more opportunities should be open for women, women shouldn't just be judged on how they look. It should also be about opening educational doors and career opportunities. When that happened in September 1968, it sort of highlighted the ways in which Miss America in particular was a bit behind the times in terms of the way in which women's participation in society was moving. After that, you see a steady decline in ratings for Miss America, really, starting in the late 1970s. Things changed a little bit in the 1980s when Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1984. She was the first black woman to be crowned Miss America. So that sort of injected some renewed interest. Of course, her year ended in not to the best way, she's the only Miss America who has ever had her crown revoked. And so I think that was another touch point where it was like, hey, women walk on stage in bathing suits, but now you're judging someone because she appeared in pornographic images. And isn't that a little bit hypocritical?

Donnis: President Trump previously had a role with the Miss Universe organization. Tell us a little bit about that and how you see the current relevance of beauty pageants.

Levey Friedman: Miss Universe and Miss USA. Were born out of the Miss America Pageant in the 1950s when the winners started saying they did not want to appear in their bathing suits after they had won the crown. Catalina who was the swimsuit sponsor and made swimsuits said okay, we're going to go start our own event and that's how Miss USA started. And so Miss USA and Miss Universe have never been confused about how who they are. They're about judging a woman's body and how it looks in a swimsuit and how beautiful she looks in an evening gown. And so when you think of it that way, it's Miss America, the nonprofit world organization and there is a focus on scholarships. Donald Trump was not interested in that nonprofit form. He was really interested in how the women looked. And so he bought the Miss Universe organization in the 1990s. By 1996, his then-wife Marla Maples was hosting Miss Universe. And so this was a big part of his brand for about 20 years, he was not able to sell the Miss Universe organization until after he declared his candidacy in 2015. And so I think what this shows is, again, is how deeply embedded beauty pageant culture is, particularly in America, but also around the world. And that some people wanted to dismiss Trump for many reasons, but also because he had owned this beauty pageant and been a reality TV star, and obviously pageants and reality TV have some associations with one another. But when we dismiss things, because they're seen as frivolous or quote-unquote, women's things or, you know, not substantive, then we're missing out on something that, you know, a good chunk of the American population really values and has interest in and we need to take all of these things seriously, and not dismiss whether it's women or anything else as just style over substance.