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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • August 20, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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There is no truth to the rumor that ABC will rename the upcoming Miss America pageant Who Wants to Be Miss America.

Once gets the feeling, however, that if the producers thought they could get away with it, they would. The pageant has survived feminism only to face ratings erosion. So, in another example of the boundless imagination of the TV networks, Miss America is borrowing from the quiz-show and reality-TV genres, including the notion of a Survivor-like jury of one's peers. Burt Parks must be spinning in his grave.

But then, makeovers are nothing new for Miss America. The flapper bathing beauties of the '20s and the bullet-bra glamour girls of the '50s and '60s would hardly recognize the do-gooding achievers who succeeded them on the runway. Based on its publicity materials, one would hardly guess the Miss America Organization runs a beauty contest. It touts itself as "the world's leading provider of scholarships for women."

Once it was enough for contestants to express vague yearnings for world peace. These days they need a formal social issue platform, a requirement since 1990. The winner is expected to spend her reign promoting causes such as literacy and AIDS awareness and to testify before Congress on her pet issues.

Scholarships? Literacy? AIDS awareness? Bo-ring. The millennial Miss America is more suited to C-Span than network prime time. Since that fateful pageant in 1968 when feminists marched in Atlantic City to protest the objectification of women, the pageant has become so earnest, so socially responsible, so politically correct, it's about as much fun as a civics lesson. No wonder the ratings, which were good enough in 1966 to trounce a counterporgrammed NFL game, have been slipping.

Some of the changes are in line with the organizers' eternal quest to make Miss America more relevant. The swimsuit competition--the long-time focus of feminist ire--will now be called Lifestyle and Fitness. To deliver the message that girls who look good in swimwear are achievers, not decorations, the runway parade will be complemented by video clips showing how the contestants stay so trim and shapely. (Sticking a finger down one's throat doesn't count.) Somehow, though, all this sanitizing seems a bit of a double standard. After all, the entire raison d'etre of programs like Temptation Island and the upcoming Love Cruise is to display buff babes in itsy-bitsy bikinis.

But then Miss America is held to a higher standard. Indeed, the quiz-show element raises the ante even higher. It's no longer enough for the winner to wear a size four, be on the fast track to law school and advocate deserving social causes. Now she has to be an American-history trivia queen. This may pose a problem for those in pre-med. On the bright side, the girls can't possibly do any worse than the Fear Factor contestants did recently on The Weakest Link, a performance that confirmed suspicions that only a moron would volunteer for such stupid stunts.

The pageant's most promising innovation is the jury room. Those who don't make it to the finals will get to discuss on-camera the strengths and weaknesses of the survivors. They'll then casts votes, which will count for 10 percent of the final tally.

I would imagine the reality-TV elements will be a bit confusing for the contestants. Despite the Miss America Organization's claim that the pageant is the original reality show, Who Wants to Be Miss America breaks from the traditional spirit of the competition. Not only will the girls have to bone up on their state capitals and U.S. presidents, they may have to reach into their Inner Bitch to retrieve the very personality qualities the pageant always airbrushed out. No one wants to see Miss Congeniality in the jury room, gushing over the poise of the 10 finalists. Audiences want to see the bad-mouthing and backstabbing they've come to expect from reality TV.

Funny how, in a society that prizes tolerance and diversity and believes no one has the right to judge others, our favorite form of entertainment celebrates precisely the behavior we are trying to banish: peers passing judgment on each other; the more mean-spirited the better.

Can the contestants make the nasty-tempered grade? I suspect the new and improved Miss America will fall somewhere in between the old entertainment values and the new. Maybe the producers should change the ending. Instead of embracing their tearful queen, the runners-up could head backstage and dis the winner before waiting cameras. Then one of them can file a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully denied her crown.

Now that's entertainment.