I haven't watched the Miss America pageant since my father tried to convince me, at 18, to lose 20 pounds so I could compete in our town's local beauty pageant.
I can still hear him say, "You're so pretty, but if you lost a little weight, you could win." I was flattered that my father thought I was pretty, but horrified he thought I was overweight. I blew a gasket. "You don't know me at all," I shouted. "I am not going to strut on a stage and have people rate me like a horse."
My dad meant no harm. That's just how young women -- even smart young women -- were judged back in the day, and still are, in large part.
Sadly, Americans -- men and women -- are still not quite ready to judge women based solely on talent and brains. Beauty -- sexual beauty -- still trumps brains. You can see that in Hollywood's attempts to modernize Disney princesses. Belle, in the latest version of "Beauty and The Beast," was re-imagined as a brainy, feminist young woman, but she is still gorgeous.
And let's face it, Belle fell in love with a horrible-looking yet fascinating beast, not the other way around. When we get to the day a gorgeous man falls in love with a horrible-looking yet brainy female beast, then I will be convinced America is fully woke.
I want to be wrong about this, and I will actually watch this year's Miss America pageant airing on Sunday -- if only to support Gretchen Carlson, the new chair of the Miss America Organization and 1989 title winner, who is trying to make the pageant a worthy endeavor in the era of #MeToo.
Carlson is paying a price for that, though. Signs have appeared in Atlantic City -- where the competition is being held -- calling Carlson a "bully" and a "public liar," presumably for disparaging Cara Mund, Miss America 2017.
It's a convoluted and confusing faux controversy. Mund has accused Carlson of "silencing her" by forcing Mund to focus her public comments on the new company line -- talent and scholarship -- and not her own pet projects. Mund, who alleges that she has been sidelined from important conversations and major media interviews, wrote a scathing letter to the pageant's board that she made public, telling ABC News, "I knew I had to stand up, not just for me, but for the volunteers and the next girl."
But if Carlson and the board's intent was to "silence" Mund, they failed miserably. Mund has talked a blue streak on GMA, CNN, Inside Edition and E! News. She's also on stage at this year's preliminary competitions in Atlantic City, and presumably she will help crown the new, more woke, Miss America 2018.
I don't know what went on between Mund and Carlson, but their spat has become an excuse for others to demonize Carlson for eliminating the swimsuit competition and everything it represents.
Women certainly have the right to show off their assets. I listened with an open mind when Miss DC 2001, Marshawn Evans Daniels, told me the swimsuit competition "was never about the men," but about "fitness" and "athleticism."
But, come on, walking around in a bikini and heels is not a celebration of a fit female body. It's a celebration of objectification -- which is what the Miss America pageant has always been about at its core. Bert Parks, who hosted the pageant from 1955 to 1979, sang these lyrics at the end of every competition.
"There she is, Miss America.
There she is, your ideal.
The dream of a million girls who are more than pretty can come true in Atlantic City.
For she may turn out to be the queen of femininity.
There she is, Miss America.
There she is, your ideal.
With so many beauties she took the town by storm.
With her all-American face and form.
And there she is walking on air, she is fairest of the fair, she is
There she is -- Miss America."
The song was retired, not because it didn't play up the winner's intellectual gifts, but because of copyright issues. According to the Washington Post, the estate of the songwriter, Bernie Wayne, never gave its permission for the pageant to use the song. After years of litigation, the case was settled and the song has made occasional appearances since.
Despite it all, I will still be watching the Miss America pageant because Gretchen Carlson is fighting the good fight. Will it succeed without the audience seeing most of the contestants' "all-American faces and forms?" Will it one day feature less gorgeous women who are also intellectually talented? And would my dad want to watch it?
I hope so.
But I doubt it.