The New Miss America, Mallory Hagan, has provoked some uncomfortable chuckles in her adopted hometown of Brooklyn. Raised in Alabama, she moved to New York to pursue her dreams, one of which was becoming Miss America. And now that she’s accomplished that, well, isn’t that a New York success story?
Only it’s not quite that. There’s something about Southern beauty queens that rankles a lot of people, and now that a Southern girl has won Miss America as Miss New York, those issues have come to the fore. A spate of articles have been written, describing the discomfort Brooklynites feel about having a beauty queen in their neighborhood, Southern beauty ideals, and even whether Southern beauty queens in the past have constituted a public relations conspiracy to gloss over the bitter wars of desegregation.
A a feminist raised in Alabama, I’ve never really understood what it is that women in the North are so uncomfortable about. I never competed in pageants (though I did twirl a mean fire baton), but I saw the whole pageant “thing” as a choice, like joining the French Club. Some girls were really into them, and some weren’t – simple as that. Even meeting fellow Syracuse University student (and then-current Miss America) Vanessa Williams before heading off to college did not prepare me for the great geographical divide that exists between women on this subject.
It’s not surprising that feminism has an uncomfortable relationship with beauty pageants – if women are only valued for our youth, beauty, and fertility, then pageants are basically a culmination of the entirety of our opportunities, wrapped up into one uncomfortable evening. And certainly the examination of why women would – or should – display themselves onstage to seek approval from judges, and compete for a crown is a valid one. For people who don’t know any pageant competitors, it’s too easy to see them as a relic from more backward region or era.
The South does have a culture that supports beauty pageants. Beauty and charm are cultivated and admired, and remaining polite under pressure is a valued quality in both men and women. So it’s not really surprising that Southern women find it more enjoyable and easier to win crowns than many of their Northern counterparts. They’ve accumulated many of the “10,000 hours” towards expertise that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Outliers. I’m not sure their ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century was a conspiracy, though: most likely the new prize of scholarship money, plus the rise of mass media and travel, prompted more Southern girls to see Miss America on TV and think to themselves: “I could win that!” As Mallory Hagan probably did – at her Miss New York blog, she wrote on Jan 2 of the upcoming national pageant, ” I am ready for this.” And she certainly was – she had competed in eight Miss America state pageants before winning Miss New York.
But enough of my blathering – why don’t we ask a real beauty queen about the subject? Shekinah Monee, pictured above, is the current reigning New York City’s Perfect Miss, a Brooklyn native who’s lived in the South as well. She’s also a model, actress, and public relations pro. And lest you think of her as a wilting flower, I should tell you that she’s a former New York City parole officer. And since she’s a Wild Beauty friend, I asked for her opinions on the subject:
Are there differences between North and South when it comes to beauty pageants?
- “You know I just did the pageant in Atlanta(as Shekinah Ashe) and there was a huge difference to me. The South better prepares their girls. Southern girls are more cut throat, but pageants there are as generational as passing on pearls and silver. So I get it.”
- “Southern girls are very much ladies, diplomatic, and sweet as pie when the cameras are on. Yet some are “difficult” at all other times. I do appreciate the NY honesty and genuineness.”
- “However, I learned so much from the South, and it has helped my friends competing. I definitely think a Northern girl can learn a thing or two.”
Do you find a racial element to pageants?
- “I don’t think pageants are racist, more so elitist. Pageants take a ton of money to compete, properly prep, and to have the proper attire.”
Do you think pageants are empowering or disempowering for women? For yourself?
- “I think pageants are a learning experience. I’ve found that almost every woman in a high office is a pageant girl or sorority girl. Pageants have opened so many doors and increased my sphere of influence. I’m not sure about feminism since I think competing in pageants is helpful to achieve so many things. It assists in having better interview skills, better appearance, more confidence – and some of my closest friends are my pageant sisters.”
And on the current Miss America:
- “I know Mallory, she’s sweet, has worked her butt off, and her not being a true Brooklyn girl was an issue when she won Miss Brooklyn 2 years ago as well.”
Many women who’ve distanced themselves from beauty pageants think of them solely as an outdated custom that women from “slower, more backwards” cultures (like the South) would participate in. That the new Miss America hails from New York via Alabama blurs that boundary. But that may be a good thing. Certainly not everyone’s going to be converted into loving beauty pageants, but in an era of greater freedom and achievement for women, they might not be the feminism-eating disease that women on the East Coast fear them to be. And maybe for people who’ve never actually been to Alabama, the new Miss America can open their eyes to what form a “real” New Yorker can take.