It’s appropriate that the Miss America pageant, that charmingly vestigial celebration of beauty and bikinis, has been taking place in Las Vegas since 2006, and even more appropriate that, in this year’s competition, the first batch of perma-smiling contestants introduced themselves from the city’s Neon Museum. That’s because, like the museum, the pageant is an institution dedicated to honoring the long-standing tradition of American kitsch, a veritable trunk show of spangles and baton-twirling and everything else that makes this country so wonderfully weird. And it’s all brought to you by Amway, that quintessentially American business that’s either the epitome of bootstrapping or, as some have accused it of being, a pyramid scheme worthy of its own Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
In the end, 23-year-old Miss New York, a.k.a. Mallory Hagan, took home the coveted tiara, as well as a $50,000 college scholarship, but the whole telecast was a flurry of rhinestones and midriffs. There was strutting, there were innumerable state-based jokes—like Miss Wisconsin’s “Where I’m from, cutting the cheese is a big deal!”— and there was even someone dancing to Journey’s “Faithfully.” The pageant’s buzzwords have always been “class” and “poise,” and Audrey Hepburn is often cited as an inspirational figure, even though in practice the show does about as good a job of replicating Hepburn’s effortless elegance as would a black velvet painting of the actress. But I guess one of the basic elements of kitsch is a certain degree of missed aspiration, after all.
Gymnast McKayla Maroney swung by as one of the judges, although they didn’t get to do much until it came question time. There were no Miss Teen USA-style mental meltdowns, but Miss Iowa (who has the unfortunate name Mariah Cary) did explain that she only supports the use of marijuana for recreational and medical purposes, as opposed to what one can only imagine would be more inventive uses.
The argument is sometimes made that the pageant is supposed to be a celebration of womanhood, but that argument usually falls apart by the time the wolf-whistles start in during the swimsuit segment. Still, it’s fascinating to watch what is essentially an annual one-off reality competition—emceed, naturally, by Chris Harrison, the host of the ever classy and poised The Bachelor—in which it’s not entirely clear at what the winner is meant to be the best. Sure, it’s objective is objectification, but it’s such an odd artifact that it’s hard to imagine it has all that much cultural influence beyond its own sparkly borders.
Did anyone else tune in for ABC’s two hours of bright lights and bright teeth? Strut on down to the comments and tell us what you thought. Remember, you’ll receive points for personality as well as intelligence.