This year, Miss America made a few more steps towards “beauty inclusion”: there were bedazzled leg braces, visible tattoos, and the longstanding “butt glue” jokes actually made it on air. But the biggest news was the winner: Indian American Nina Davuluri took the Crown of America’s Girl Next Door, and now it’s official: “All American Beauty Includes Indian Girls.” Not that this is surprising to those of us on the forefront of beauty and culture. But it seems to surprise a few others. What to make of it?
First, everybody can calm down about the whole “who’s representing America” thing. The Miss America Pageant is entertainment, first and foremost. Looking to Miss America for the Ideal American Woman is akin to looking at American Idol and assuming that all the best musical talent wants to deal with Simon Cowell. C’mon… Miss America is a reality show with choreographed dance routines and a “fan favorite” feature to get all the people at home to think their votes count. It’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” with swimsuits!
Historically there have been loads of beauty pageant winners from India – it’s kind of like Brazil. Or Venezuela. Or Texas (which is not a country, but you get my drift…) International beauty pageant winners go on to become movie stars and sign lucrative modelling contracts. In a country where there are still not a lot of options for many girls, it’s one way to dream big. Here’s the first international pageant winner from India, Reita Faria, Miss World 1966, at right:
And our beauty ideals in the United States are more diverse than many believe. Even though there were ignorant and racist tweets about the new Miss America, far more people came out in support of Miss Davuluri than complained that she wasn’t “American” enough. (And it has also been pointed out that she is probably too dark-skinned to win a beauty pageant in India, which has its own longstanding issues with skin color.)
But one of the biggest hurdles in accepting an Indian American as Miss America may be another cultural stereotype of Indians: the Nerd. We’re so used to Indians winning spelling bees, getting multiple graduate degrees, and fixing computers(while their parents run restaurants), that we forget that the immigrants who come here are far more diverse than that.
It’s a conversation that an Indian friend of mine, Teju Prasad, has had so often, he’s made a documentary: Not a Feather, But a Dot explores the roots of American views on Indian and Hindu culture, and interviews Indian Americans who don’t quite fit that nerdy stereotype, from a hip-hop artist to a porn star, and a New York City police officer, among others. (Coincidentally, the film is accepting reservations for a September 25 screening in New York until 3pm September 18.) Here’s the trailer, which features the nerdy stereotype and Simon Cowell:
Teju tells me he sees events such as Miss Davuluri’s Miss America win as both “a willingness by enough of ‘mainstream America’ to allow new and different people to partake in some of America’s most honored traditions, and a belief by those who may be considered “un-American”… that they may actually be considered for such a recognition in the first place.”
He continues: “In directing the film, I met many people in Miss America’s position: those who were the “first” Indian-American to occupy their position. The one thing similar, they all took it as an opportunity to educate those around them, and in doing-so contribute to changing what we as a country think of when we hear the word ‘American’.”
Miss America has a cultural voice, if not a loud one: after the publicity dies down, she’ll be off to a heavy schedule of events which most of us will not attend. But having a Miss America who stresses cultural competency – who in fact has participated in a bicultural life – is a new way of looking at the All American experience. Davuluri said it herself: “I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves. She’s not who she was 10 years ago, and she’s not going to be the same person come 10 years down the road.”
Screening of Not a Feather, But a Dot details:
AMC Loews Village 7
66 3rd Ave, NY, NY
Weds September 25th
ticket reservation link: Tugg.com.
all tickets must be reserved by this weds, 9/18, 3:00 pm
P.S. In case you’re wondering, the first Native American Indian Miss America is Norma Descygne Smallwood, of Cherokee descent, who won the pageant in 1926.