Chapter 2c: The Beauty Pageant Audience
Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants: The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter II: The Audience
Part c: The Audience of the Beauty Pageant, andConclusions
The Miss America competition and other "beauty"contests, have obviously become less sexually-oriented as the years progress, due to thebasically conservative nature of the competition audience.
Miss America, started in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, isconsidered the seminal modern beauty pageant, not because it was the first beauty contest(it wasn't), but because its format set the standard for virtually all other leadingbeauty competitions.
82 The first "Inter-City BeautyCompetition," as the Miss America Pageant was originally called, was a mediaevent created by the merchants of Atlantic City to encourage the middle-class vacationers,who formed the bulk of Atlantic City's tourist trade, to extend their stay in the citypast Labor Day.
The promoters at Atlantic City were very careful to do as muchas possible to assure the public of the respectability of their enterprise, and the moralpurity of their contestants. From the very first year, contestants were chaperoned duringtheir time in Atlantic City; respected magazine illustrators like James Montgomery Flagg,Cole Phillips and Norman Rockwell were used as judges,
84 andamateur beauties were judged separately from "professional" models andactresses. The image that the Atlantic City promoters wanted was of innocent respectablefamily fun, not sexy girls in swimsuits.
At the first contest in 1921 the contestants paraded on footdown the beach in swimsuits. Interestingly, at this time the modern feminist anti-pageantcriticism that contestants are made to parade in swimsuits before a fully-clothed audience(thus degrading them and turning them into sex objects) was not applicable, since in theearly years the audience on the beach, the marching bands, the crowd-control police, theMayor, and judges all wore only swimsuits during that part of the contest. There were alsoseven different bathing suit divisions in the contest, including family groups.
The care which even early contests took to disassociate theperformance from any taint of sexuality has to be understood in terms of the middle classaudience values of the Atlantic City tourist. Beauty contests in newspapers were onlygradually gaining acceptance as a respectable activity for young women and Atlantic Cityhad a justifiable reputation as one of the more conservative and respectable resorts. In1913 a woman on the beach there was assaulted by an outraged crowd for wearing a shortbathing suit. Atlantic City had rather restrictive bathing suit decency laws whichdemanded much greater coverage than that of working-class beaches such as Coney Island.
The conservative nature of the Atlantic City tourists wasdescribed a few weeks before the first contest by Helen Bullitt Lowry in The New YorkTimes. Her article, "Innocence at Atlantic City," contrasts therespectability of the tourists there, with the fallacious image of sin at summer resorts:
When a girl wants to make acquaintances at Atlantic City...she makes a point of sitting up (sic) the old ladies. She gets them to teach her a new knitting stitch, and she listens intently. The young man who admires this girl selects the same old lady and tells her his family is Presbyterian or Methodist, all according to his luck in hitting on her denomination. Before a day has passed the old lady has introduced them. The first requisite for being a vamp on the boardwalk is to keep in with the old ladies.
Lowry also remarked on the respectably full old-fashionedtaffeta and sateen bathing suits worn on the beach: "In short, vice in the waves isstill expressed in terms of rubber daisy trimmings on your rubber cap, and in green silkstockings. Atlantic City isn't onto our [New York's] subtler forms of shocking the bathcensor."
The Atlantic City tourists were middle-class vacationers fromthe South, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, "The Backbone of The Country," asLowry put it. "The Backbone of The Country has its special brand for doingeverything," she pointed out, even its own way of flirting with sin, whileeffectively chaperoning it into respectability:
They wander into the fashionable Chelsea-End cafes in high collars of transparent net, boned up with silk-covered, perpetually waved wires, and group themselves contentedly at the ringside tables.
"Just look at that woman smoking," murmurs the lady from Georgia, where "ladies" don't smoke, "Now you know she doesn't get any pleasure out of it, but is just trying to make herself look flashy?"
Tiers of rocking chairs overlook each pay-as-you-enter dance floor where The Backbone of The Country amuses itself deciding which is the Camel walk, instead of getting up the Christmas bazaar, at which the Lord in His wisdom ordained that they should find their recreation. Wherever a couple in bathing suits lol (sic) on the sand together there are at least three good ladies leaning over the rail of the Boardwalk trying to hear what they say...Don Juan himself would have had to exert himself to feel wicked.
The audience at Atlantic City could therefore be seen to beslightly indulgent to "nice" young people and their indiscretions, but largelyconservative, and ever watchful against genuine "vice". As envisioned by thisgroup the ideal Miss America was more likely to be an ideal daughter figure than a sexybathing beauty.
The conservative middle-class middle-aged vacationing familycontinued to be the staple audience of the Atlantic City beauty contest and others until1954 when ABC opened out the Pageant to the larger television audience and first broadcastthe Miss America pageant live into living rooms all over the U.S.. In the first year ofthe broadcast the Pageant had a 20.9 rating with a 39% share of viewing audience, andfigures climbed steadily to a 41.8 rating and a 75% share in 1961. In the 1960's theirfigures lowered down to 35.1 and 62% by 1969, but the anti-pageant demonstrations byfeminists of that year and the reforms that followed renewed public interest:
When Miss America fell out of touch with the times as the 1960's wore on, there was some erosion in its high ratings figures, but the pageant's slight subsequent concessions to reality appear to have been enough to have reversed the trend. In 1970, the show drew its largest audience ever, again taking a two-thirds share. By usual ratings standards, this translates into 22,360,000 homes...the 1970 version was the fifth most popular special in television history.
Miss Universe, Miss America's strongest rival pageant, also hasa firm grip on the American public's viewing taste. Despite the huge erosion in networkT.V.'s ratings in the 1980's caused by Cable, beauty pageants still pull in high ratingfigures (lower than figures in the 1960's and 70's but still higher than other kinds ofnetwork specials). For example, the promotional literature used by the Madison SquareGarden corporation to sell advertisers commercial time during pageants indicates that theMiss Universe pageant of 1988 had a 15.7 Nielsen rating, and its preliminary pageant, MissU.S.A., had a 16.2 rating. While these were smaller ratings than those of Miss America inthe 1960's they were ahead of the highly rated Julie Andrews Christmas Special (14.5), BobHope's Tribute to America (12.3), and the Tony (9.5) and Emmy (8.8) Awards ceremonies, aswell as many others. According to these statistics Miss USA alone has a viewership of50,117,000, composed of 50% women, 30% adult men, 10% young children, and 9% teenagers[The remaining 1% is not explained.]
90 According to formerMiss USA Paula Peterson Burwell, Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants "attract morefemale viewers in the prime consumer age bracket of 18 to 49, which makes its advertisingslots more valuable. Miss America tends to attract relatively young and old viewers."
The live audiences at beauty pageants are neither commented uponin print nor surveyed for demographics any longer, since the huge television audience isso much larger. However, it is still the live audience which provides the performers withthe majority of their direct feedback.
For example The 1990 Miss Marin Scholarship Pageant (partof the Miss America organization) attracted an audience conforming to the national patternof two-thirds women, one-third men, and an assortment of ages. Since the audience wascomposed of people in a variety of ages, and (outside of the pageant), with very probablya wide variety of entertainment interests, their reaction to individual talentpresentations seemed to be determined not so much by which kind of "talent" wasperformed, or even how well it was done, but by the comprehensibility of the performance,and how good the contestant looked doing it. For instance, a performer who played"Think of Me" from Phantom of the Opera on the flute, quite flat, but in astunning green evening gown with a stylish up-sweep hairdo received considerably moreapplause than a contestant who sang an obscure opera aria in Italian with perfect pitch.The audience apparently applauded poise, style, good looks and comprehensibility before itdemanded individual artistic talent, and this feedback affected the judging to the extentthat the flutist made first runner up.
With beauty contest audiences coming from a broad cross-sectionof ages and, in the Nationals, a cross-section of income and ethnic groups, it isnecessarily generalized and compromising, showing neither a strong preference for male orfemale ideals of a woman's body type, young or old peoples' preferences in music, and highor low brow tastes in talent presentation. As with the judges, each individual in theaudience may be an expert in the nuances of modern dance or country western singing orcompetitive gymnastics, but taken as a whole, they cancel each other out, both inexpertise and preferences. As a result, performances in the talent area are not judgedunder the exacting standards of connoisseurship but under the generalized standards ofstage presence, onstage personality, showmanship, and costume.
92Swimsuit competition produces winners that are neither the de-sexed model figures whichwomen prefer, or the over-sexed, bosomy figures that are extolled by men's magazines, buta rather even, middle-of-the-road healthy figure on average. Evening gown winners neverwear conspicuously avant-garde fashion "statement" dresses, or old fashioned"dated" dresses; winning colors are typically black, white, red, or blue.
93 Even in color, individual "favorites" cancel eachother out and the popular "safe" choices rise to the top.
The overall effect of this audience plurality on the performanceis that of a compromised ideal--rather like the choice of a President, who is rarely oneof the candidates that inspires the most ardent devotion from a small group, but whom thelargest group is willing to grudgingly settle for. This usually means winners are acompromise choice: cute and sexy enough to arouse the prurient, but innocent and girlishenough to assuage the worries of the moralistic; intelligent and assertive enough tocreate an impression, but never aggressive or intellectually intimidating; talented enoughat presenting a song or dance to "carry it off," but rarely so good as tosucceed in that field against professionals. This is the natural result of trying toplease everyone in America simultaneously, and gives a conservative (in the proper meaningof the word) bent to the performance as a whole, rather than allowing it to be eitherradical or reactionary.
Those periods when the judges, organization, and contestants ofthe Miss America Pageant swayed noticeably from the general American mood of the time,either by being too reactionary or radical, hurt the Pageant by alienating its audience.For example, during the 1960's, when social liberalism was pervading American thought, theMiss America Pageant underwent a reactionary phase and was seen as pro-Vietnam, racist,sexist, and hopelessly out of fashion in matters of both ideas and clothes, eroding TVratings. A contestant in 1969 recalled trying to buy clothing for the Pageant in thatyear:
The clothing styles had to reach within two inches of the knee, and they just weren't selling any dresses like that. We knew that all we could do was lengthen dresses that we bought, but the problem was that we couldn't even find dresses long enough so that when we let them down they were long enough for the pageant.
In matters of politics, too, Miss America had fallen behind thetimes, joining "the Vietnam bandwagon just as everyone else was scurrying off"by travelling to Vietnam for USO tours after 1967 when Miss World refused to go. Also,despite the civil rights advances made during the 1960's, and the growing acceptance ofblack fashion models and film stars by the public, there were no black contestants in theNational contest until 1970. This was a full ten years after the first black state queen(Corrine Huff, Miss Ohio) made the nationals of the Miss USA Pageant. Even compared toother beauty pageants Miss America had become reactionary.
95Feminists also picketed the Miss America Pageant in 1968 and 1969 for choosing "blandapolitical" contestants and promptly received more news coverage than the Pageantitself.
Even Middle America was seeing the Pageant as being tooreactionary. This caused T.V. ratings to decline in the 1960's, going from a high point in1961 with a 41.8 rating and a 75% share to a 35.1 rating and a 62% share in 1969. Ratingsjumped up again in 1970 to 37.2 and 66% when Miss America made minor token cosmeticchanges to appease the audience, among them their first black contestant, and the firstwinner without a beehive hairdo since 1961.
A much stronger audience protest against the Pageant reached ahead in 1928 and actually closed down the pageant from 1928 through 1933. Back then it wasconservatives who were charging that pageants sexually exploited young women, and theywere even more vociferous than the feminists of 1969. The Y.W.C.A. of Trenton, N.J. issueda statement reported in The New York Times in 1924 "charging that the Atlantic Citybathing beauty parades exposed the young women participants to serious perils":
The shocking costumes which such contests encourage certainly call for protests from organizations interested in girl welfare...It was noticed by competent observers that the outlook on life of girls who participated was completely changed. Before the competition they were splendid examples of innocent and pure womanhood. Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas.
The New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs, also made aresolution condemning beauty pageants at their convention held in Atlantic City in 1924,calling such contests "detrimental to the morality and modesty of our youngwomen."
97 And the Ocean City Camp Meeting Association in1923 adopted a resolution, specifically condemning the Atlantic City Pageant for itscommercial exploitation of young women:
The danger lies in taking girls of tender years and robing them in attire that transgresses the limit of morality. The effect on them and the publication of their photographs in the newspapers are to be highly deplored.
As each year followed, more organizations made declarationsagainst beauty pageants but this kind of protest sounded merely stuffy in the first fewyears of the Pageant when innocent non-professional brunette winners with Mary Pickfordcurls and no makeup were being lauded by respected leaders like Samuel Gompers of theA.F.L. as "the type of womanhood America needs--strong, red-blooded, able to shoulderthe responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of thecountry rests."
However, a change in the kind of contestants who entered thepageant in the Mid-Twenties offended conservative people who began to see that theobjections of some moralists to the Pageant might be valid. The 1925 winner Fay Lanphierwas the first with bobbed, bleached hair. When she won in 1925 she was immediately"whisked to New York" for a special salute arranged by a film studio offeringher a contract. Will Rogers and Rudolph Valentino were among those to toast her and it wasreported that she took $50,000 out of a sixteen-week personal appearance tour thatfollowed. She then went to Hollywood to act in a Laurel and Hardy film, get married andshortly thereafter, get divorced. None of this could be expected to please theconservative "Backbone of the Country" that flocked to Atlantic City to seeexamples of "the type of womanhood America needs," or the even more conservativeHotelmen's Association that catered to their vacation needs.
Norma Smallwood, Lanphier's successor, not only milked her titlefor $100,000 in personal appearances, but also wore makeup (conspicuously pencilled eyebrows and dark red cupid-bow lips shine clearly through the old small full-length photosof her). Her successor Lois Delander was a sweet school girl, 16 years old, who had amedal for knowing Biblical verses, and wore an American flag bathing suit, but by then itwas too late--the image of the Miss America contest as a girly show that attractedpublicity seeking starlets and loose women had taken hold.
This image was not all the work of the hapless Lanphier andSmallwood. The Atlantic City Hotelmen'sAssociation president, Julian Hillman, pointed out that "There has been an epidemicrecently of women who seek personal aggrandizement and publicity by participating invarious stunts around the world, and the hotelmen feel that in recent years that type ofwomen (sic) has been attracted to the Pageant in ever-increasing numbers."
100 These women were not the sort of contestants that thehotelmen's customers approved of: Charlotte Nash, Miss St. Louis 1923, promoted herself inthe contest by insuring her dimples for $100,000 and having her face printed onadvertising fans with the caption "Popular Favorite" like a sports star. Also in1923, the first Miss Alaska's publicity said that "Her startling beauty was untouchedby the rigors of over 5000 miles that required dog-sled, aeroplane, train and motorcar." But it was soon discovered that she was in fact the wife of a physical cultureexpert who was looking for publicity and had never even been to Alaska. Miss Boston 1924also turned out to be married.
In 1925 The New York Graphic hurled scores of charges atthe Pageant in a series of articles which it syndicated to eighty-six other papers, amongthem that the vote for Lanphier had been fixed, that the Coney Island preliminary selecteda professional showgirl (not permitted at the time) in judging done by her own boss, andthat another professional, Miss Knapp, was put in as a replacement for the true MissManhattan. While the claim that the 1925 contest was fixed was later refuted in court, theretraction did not come until 1928 when the contest had been suspended---partly due to theprotracted "scandal" the Graphic had invented.
The dubious results of the preliminary contests, as well as thepublicity-seeking tactics of some of the contestants tarnished the image of Miss Americato the point that by 1928 the conservative Atlantic City audience wanted nothing more todo with her. While there was one small contest in 1933 which was not given any localsupport, the City Fathers would not sponsor a return of the contest until 1935, in theheart of the Depression, when would-be Hollywood starlets were thought to be more thestuff of Andy Hardy movies than of sin.
Iron Magnolia Lenora Slaughter also joined the Miss Americapageant in 1935--the first woman to take substantial part in the management of thePageant--and instituted a reform campaign designed to turn Miss America into a respectableAmerican institution. By making changes that brought Miss America more into line with whatthe "The Backbone of the Country" saw as the ideal of American girlhood, shechipped away year by year at the old image of a brainless cheesecake contest fostered bythe bad publicity of the mid-Twenties. She introduced "Talent" presentations in1935, and made them a regular category for judging in 1938 in answer to the perennialcriticism that Miss America was nothing but a talentless bathing beauty. She raised theage limit to 18, got rid of male chaperonage, instituted monastic-styled controls on thegirls at the pageants (no liquor, smoking, or talking to men--even fathers), moved thePageant indoors, introduced college scholarships, took preliminary contests away fromnewspapers and shady amusement parks and gave them to the Jaycees to run, and finally gotMiss America's official newspaper picture to feature her in an evening gown and not aswimsuit. Her actions brought Miss America more and more in line with the respectablemiddle class tastes of the Atlantic City tourists and, as a result, Miss America becamemore and more of a respected American institution with the audience.
In a recent poll American women (who comprise approximatelytwo-thirds of beauty pageant audiences) approved of the Miss America Pageant by 91%despite the fact that more women than ever claim to be feminists.
101A quick look at the recent pageants, however, explains this trend. The Miss AmericaPageant has once again fallen into line with the taste of Middle America. Now that averageAmericans think of themselves as anti-racist and mildly pro-feminist, winning contestantscome in all colors and declare themselves to be liberated women. Even the rules of thecompetition have been changed in order to ensure that winners are assertive, articulateand intelligent, as well as pretty. The 1990 Miss America Judges Committee Manualinstructs judges to look for contestants who are "the best composite of the followingattributes: Intelligence, Talent, Leadership, Courage, Communication and InterpersonalSkills, Poise, Attractiveness." The areas of competition which help judges find this"composite" are weighed as follows: Talent 40%, Interview 30%,Evening Gown 15%,Swimsuit 15%.
Not surprisingly, recent winners have reflected these changes bybeing more assertive and ambitious. In an article in Cosmopolitan September 1989, the newAmerican ideal of womanhood, the success-oriented feminist is featured as the ideal modern"beauty" pageant contestant:
Each woman...is subjected to a grilling before a panel of preliminary judges that would bring beads of sweat to the brow of Dan Quayle. Contestants are...asked to converse intelligently on such topics as National Defense, the budget deficit, abortion, and the impact of the Environmental Protection Agency. This interrogation is a major part of the search for the so-called Woman of the Eighties.
The way most Miss Americas have succesfully reflected theaudience taste of their times can be seen by comparing polls taken of the Americanpublic's opinions and comparing them to the winners that followed. For instance, in thethroes of desire to return to "traditional" male and female roles at the end ofWorld War II, Americans were polled and asked, "Do you approve of a married womanearning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supportingher?" In late 1945, only 18% approved, 62% disapproved, and 20% had either no opinionor approved only under special circumstances. People were also asked in 1945 "If theparty whose candidate you most often support nominated a woman for President of the U.S.,would you vote for her if she seemed best qualified for the job?" The public said"No" 55% to 33% with 12% abstaining.
104 Two yearslater Barbara Jo Walker, Miss America 1947, pleased audiences with the statement,"I'm only interested in one contract--the marriage contract," and came to theAtlantic City competition with her engagement ring on.
More recently the viewing public has wanted women with careerambitions, as evidenced by the changes in the results of polls taken about women aspoliticians, and wives who work. Gallup stopped bothering to survey whether peopleapproved of married women working after 1976, when the public approved 68% to 29%, thevery same question that had been asked in the 1940's.
106 WhenGallup asked in 1984, whether Americans would vote for a woman for President if she werequalified, people said 78% to 17% that they would.
107 Itfollows then, that the expectations the audience has had for "ideal" young womenlately are more career-oriented and politically active than they were formerly. The nextchapter will review how this alteration in the audience's opinions has effected the choiceof performers and the way they present themselves in order to appear to live up to theideal.
Conclusions about the Audience
In summation, fashion shows, burlesque strip shows and beautypageants emerged during the first third of the Twentieth Century as outgrowths ofwholesale trade shows, classical burlesque, and newspaper beauty contests. Whileoriginally these new forms were not rigidly defined, and sometimes even"borrowed" techniques from one another, eventually audience pressure andexpectation forced them further apart into the forms we recognize today.
The typical audience of fashion shows was inclusive of allclasses of American women, who watched fashion shows in order to imagine themselveslooking as fashionable (and attractive) as the models. This audience which has shown aconstant fear of fatness and admiration for the tall, thin, "boyish" figure eversince the early part of the Century, has continuously pressured the performers intomasculine thinness in order to measure up to this ideal. This has caused the progressivenarrowing of model figures from substantial "38's" to minimal size "5's,"
108 which reflects a female audience's ideal imagein a society where men are seen as the superior social group which must be emulated.
The burlesque audience consisted largely of men, who behaved asthough they came to watch a voyeuristic spectacle: they were ashamed to be seen at thetheatre, but while watching the strip acts became unusually aroused and noisy. Byapplauding and attending performances which were the most bare they influenced theperformers and producers to create shows that grew progressively more naked, until mostperformers completed their acts wearing only G-strings. The audience also graduallyimposed its ideal image of female sexuality onto the performance, encouraging performerswho displayed aggressive rather than passive sexuality in performance, and who bestgratified the breast fixation inherent in most males. This audience influence has causedstrip performances to become barer and more openly sexual in nature as time goes on.
Finally, the beauty pageant audience was composed of both menand women of assorted classes, opinions and ages. In the case of the Miss America Pageantthese were middle-class vacationers from the South, Mid-West, and East, during the first33 years of the Pageant, who were succeeded by a television audience of nearly the wholeU.S., for the last 36 years. This audience is essentially conservative and compromising asa group, since any extreme opinion which is held by one part of the group is usuallybalanced by its opposite in another part of the group. This audience has pressuredpageants to follow the conservative values in which the solid American majority believesin at any point in time, or suffer the consequences. The Miss America Pageant, as the mostobvious example, has flourished under audience support when the Pageant expressed thebeliefs of the audience, and has languished (as for example in the late 1920's and 1960's)when it travelled away from audience expectations too far to the left or right.
All three forms of theatre: fashion shows, strip shows andbeauty pageants show evidence of being shaped by audience images of "ideal"women, and all three have shaped the images of their performers to best express theseideals, each of which are particular to the context of each form.
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