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Donald Trump isn’t the only problem with the Miss USA pageant

Don’t just #DumpTrump. Dump Miss USA, too.


Derrick Clifton

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 3, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 10:35 am CDT

As the saying goes, “God don’t like ugly.” And neither does America.

It’s a lesson Donald Trump must unexpectedly reckon with, after calling Mexicans “rapists” and criminals during his presidential campaign announcement. He has yet to back down, and recently doubled down in an interview with CNN. “Who’s doing the raping?” Trump asked repeatedly. While his numbers are up in the polls, his remarks are hitting him in a place where it really hurts: his pockets.

A growing roster of public figures and corporations have joined the #DumpTrump bandwagon, including Univision and NBC Universal, the media conglomerate home to The Apprentice and his pageants, Miss Universe and Miss USA. Network executives will continue Trump’s iconic management training program without him, but the July 12 Miss USA pageant will no longer air on NBC; neither will Miss Universe, when it crowns its next winner in 2016.

Now—in the absence of a major network broadcaster—is the perfect opportunity to dethrone Miss USA from its pop cultural perch.

We no longer need this kind of pageant, one that, from the beginning, was a purely corporate venture. Miss USA was founded as part of a promotional campaign by Catalina Swimsuits, and the ownership of the organization eventually shifted over to three different large corporations, eventually becoming part of Trump’s empire. It’s an empire now being challenged by business partners who can no longer tolerate his corrosive politics.

So far, Trump’s saving grace has been the independent movie channel Reelz, which agreed to a broadcast deal for this year’s Miss USA competition. Surely, networks will bid to air Trump’s pageants in the future, but they’d be better off avoiding the brunt of an almost certain public backlash, given his track record of incendiary remarks about Latinos, African-Americans, and transgender women. After all, he’d still be the owner, and the money generated from a broadcast deal would fill his already deep coffers.

Without NBC, and Univision as a Spanish-language simulcasting partner, it’s highly unlikely the pageant will ever again reach its annual viewership of roughly 5.5 million. As Deadline reports, Reelz is only seen in 60 percent of American homes with one or two more television sets. Clearly, they need whatever ratings bump they can get, even if it pales in comparison to a major network.

As the saying goes, “God don’t like ugly.” And neither does America.

In a statement, Reelz CEO Stan Hubbard bypassed any mention of the controversy, saying the decision to air “was based on our belief that this special event, and the women who compete in it, are an integral part of American tradition. As one of only a few independent networks, we decided to exercise our own voice and committed ourselves to bringing this pageant to American viewers everywhere.” 

In other words, their top priority isn’t about affirming the humanity of Latinos and Mexican immigrants. Instead, it’s all about that mean green. (As an apparent way of staving off controversy from an otherwise socially irresponsible business decision, Reelz will air public service announcements about “Hispanic non-political causes” in the coming weeks.)

But as the Hill reports, Hubbard says Trump will actually lose money from the interim broadcast deal. The pageant itself must now scramble to find new hosts and performers, now that Thomas Roberts, Roselyn Sanchez, Cristian de la Fuenta, Flo Rida, and J Balvin have withdrawn from their Miss USA gigs. 

The tradeoff between audience accountability and profiteering just isn’t worth it. Even if Reelz continues pandering to an aggrieved audience of Latinos and their allies, Miss USA likely won’t be a ratings boon for the channel. 

As Ellen Killoran writes at Forbes, Trump’s pageants aren’t a Super Bowl when it comes to ratings, perhaps signaling that they’ve lost any real resonance with a mainstream audience. “Ratings on NBC have been up and down but mostly sliding for the last several years; the highest-rated Miss USA broadcast in the last decade was in 2005, at 8.1 million,” she notes. “Still, the most recent Miss Universe pageant broadcast performed well, with 7.7 million viewers in January.”

No one needs messages from a television program, let alone a “scholarship granting” organization, dictating what it means to be beautiful, successful, articulate. 

But the problem with pageants isn’t merely a matter ratings or about Trump’s personal politics. At its root, an organization like Miss USA has been a dominant purveyor of the beauty culture industrial complex, a system in which a normative beauty ideal has been forced onto consumers by large corporations for several decades. Reinforcing the idea that fair-skinned, straight-haired, thin, cisgender white women are the gold standard for American femininity and womanhood, Miss USA’s beauty politics offer a vehicle for empowerment only for women who fit the standard of womanhood.

Both Miss USA and its counterpart, Miss America, are guilty of the same toxic beauty politics. Although Miss America attempts to position itself as a provider of scholarships for women, both pageants, at their root, are beauty contests where career and educational opportunities are tied to one’s appearance.

In an 2013 op-ed for Verily magazine, Krizia Liquido, a former Miss San Francisco, noted that Miss USA fronts itself as a pageant that’s equally about brains and beauty, but the spirit of the system skews towards “pretty.” Half of the score is about fitness and poise, the other half for articulation, but the audience, judges, contestants, and coaches, tend to rank “beauty before a contestant even has chance to demonstrate her strength and intelligence.”

Liquido writes:

Miss America is awarded a substantial scholarship award to the college or grad school of her choice ($50,000 this year), while Miss USA’s prize includes custom diamond jewelry, a one-year scholarship to a film academy, haircare products, wardrobe, a luxury apartment during her reign, a modeling portfolio, among others.

But in 2015, education and career opportunity need not be married to the idea that one must be considered attractive by mainstream standards to have a prayer at advancement.

It’s also important to remember the scholarships offered by Miss America came during a time in history when women were only starting to enjoy voting rights and access to mainstream, predominantly white colleges and universities that were exclusively reserved for men. But during the formative years of both organizations, women of color were excluded from competing. 

Over time, both pageants have become more inclusive along other elements of identity but, by and large, the vast majority of Miss USA and Miss America’s winners have been white women.

In 1923, as PBS’s American Experience highlights, the first black women to appear on Miss America’s stage weren’t contestants; they appeared as slaves in a musical number. At least one Native American woman and one Asian American appeared as contestants during the 1940s and ‘50s. The first black contestant didn’t appear on stage until 1970, when Cheryl Brown won the title of Miss Iowa and went on to compete on the national telecast. 

During the formative years of both organizations, women of color were excluded from competing. 

It wasn’t until September 17, 1983 that Vanessa Williams, now an acclaimed singer and actress, won the title and scholarship money before a leaked nude photo scandal resulted in her controversial dethronement. At least nine other women of color have held the title since Williams.

And notably, in 2002, when the District of Columbia’s Shauntay Hinton took the title, four of the Miss USA delegates in the Top 5 were black women (Lindsay Douglas, the only white woman in the final group, placed as runner-up). 

By comparison, the Miss USA competition, which began in 1952, started out as something of a pacesetter, having crowned their first woman of color in 1963: Hawaii’s Macel Wilson, an Asian-American/Pacific Islander. Twenty-two years later, Laura Martinez-Herring became the first Latina to win, with at least six others following in her footsteps (Miss America, to date, hasn’t crowned a Latina). In 1990, Carol Gist took the crown, a first for black women at the pageant. 

But instead of demanding that pageants be more inclusive of women and femme-identified people who are of color, trans and/or gender nonconforming, curvy, or live with a disability, we must face reality: Pageants aren’t going to change to reflect the diversity of their audience more than they already have. Any such change would be too much of a shock to a twisted system controlled by a racist billionaire who doesn’t even see Latinos as fully deserving of humanity.

No one needs an outdated pageant dictating what it means to be beautiful, poised, and articulate. That’s not the kind of conditional validation anyone needs—not young women and girls, femme-identified individuals, or anyone else. Let’s give Miss USA the final walk it deserves; one that’s away from our television screens.

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 3, 2015, 5:38 pm CDT