Miss America: Brown Girl on the Bridge to Nowhere

When Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1983, I was fifteen. As a young woman of African heritage, I was supposed to feel validated, but I didn’t.  Williams’ wide blue eyes, sandy hair, and middle America girl-next-door looks didn’t do anything to validate my sense of my beauty as a Black girl.  She challenged the racial category of the winner, but not the aesthetics of the beauty standards.

Sunday, as many in the nation watched Nina Davuluri crowned as the first South Asian Miss America, I had that usual ambivalence about brown women breaking into sexist institutions.

Beauty pageants embody so many pressures on women that I think are negative and damaging.  Women being judged based on their appearance in evening gowns and in bathing suits.  I love the “talent” and “interview” portions, as they give the pretense that this is not first and foremost about appearance.  If those parts of the competition had any real importance, then women with unconventional beauty could win the overall pageant with mind-blowing talent.  Imagine a pre-Weight Watcers Jennifer Hudson as Miss America?  Not gonna happen.  We know it’s all about looks.

And it’s all about judging.  Pageants, and especially televised pageants, are a public spectacle of female competition for attention based on appearance.  Everyone, male and female, from poised judges to beer-swilling couch potatoes, gets to participate in the evaluation of young women.  No one else’s bodies are scrutinized as publicly, as constantly, as predatorily as young women’s bodies.

Nina Davuluri seems like a sharp young woman.  I’m glad young brown women in general and South Asian women in particular have had their beauty validated, but in this context, it’s only bittersweet.  What are we celebrating here?  Our right to be objectified?  Our right to starve and wax and pluck and flatiron like white women?  Our right to have frat boys use our photos for rape joke memes about what they’d like to do to us?

Meanwhile, also on the internet, we see the incredible racism that targets the new winner, including calling her a “sand nigger,” calling her a Muslim terrorist, and making allusions to 9/11.  As usual, ignorant internet users demonstrate that they don’t know a South Asian from an Arab, a Hindu from a Muslim, and just generally insult everyone brown at the same time.

Nina Davuluri is lovely, intelligent, and she must have worked very hard to win, not to mention very hard as an aspiring doctor.  In a world where young women are still categorized in a looks vs. smarts paradigm, it’s great to see a young woman of color with conventional beauty who also has invested heavily in her mind and career. I loved her comment about surgery, “I don’t agree with plastic surgery,” she told NBC.  “Be confident in who you are.”  In addition to her pageant win, she has a bright future in medicine.

This is far from true for most winners.  If you look at the “Where are they now?” for Miss America, you find a mostly unimpressive set of outcomes for these women’s lives.  Some become consultants in the pageant circuit, but there are limited opportunities there. Vanessa Williams is a notable exception to a largely mediocre set of life outcomes.  I don’t think it’s because the women are not intelligent, rather I think it’s because nothing about swimsuit competitions, and poised walking in a gown actually prepares you for success in today’s world.  In reality, Miss America is a big debutante ball where women are being displayed in the old school style to get the attention of marriageable men to secure their futures.  But that’s not actually the way the world works now.  And even for women who do get snatched up by a wealthy guy based on her alluring youthful beauty, there’s always the risk of a trade-in for a newer trophy wife model later.  So the only way that women can actually secure their future is by investing in their minds, careers, and skillsets.

While boys are consistently encouraged to pursue the development of their skills and talents, even in 2013 women are still encouraged to focus on appearance.  We are all familiar with the high school cliché of the head cheerleader dating the captain of the football team.  These are social power positions for young women and young men in traditional high schools throughout the US.  But let’s look at where these pursuits actually lead. The top NFL player makes over 20 million a year.  Top cheerleaders make about $5,000 annually.  Yes, you read that right.  Five.  Thousand. A year.  While cheerleading does require athletic skill and dance talent, at the end of the day it’s about pretty girls cheering for the boys, the only athletes who really matter.  The girls are being tracked to go absolutely nowhere.

At the end of the day, Miss America is really about our society’s ritualized ogling and evaluation of young women’s bodies, with the pretense that it’s about the “total package.” After the scholarship money is spent and her yearlong reign is over, the spotlight moves on. But I’m confident that Davuluri will be okay. She’s a sharp young aspiring doctor. I’m not worried that this win will throw her off her game.


152 Comments on “Miss America: Brown Girl on the Bridge to Nowhere”

  1. suzkima says:

    Reblogged this on suzkima and commented:
    A GOOD READ….

  2. Praz says:

    Excellent one, I too do not understand why is there is such a difference in humanity. Everyone ultimately wants to live peacefully & happily, so why not help each other in achieving the same rather than just making fuss…

  3. TM99 says:

    As the mother of a 12 and half-year-old daughter, I’ll be sure to share some of your points with her. Thanks for the insightful, well-written piece!

    • stlluna7 says:

      I like the comment on oogling young women’s bodies under pretense. I have a 24 year old daughter and I know I would be upset to see her objectified by fat men in big suits.

  4. rlittleshug says:

    I read this with great interest. I am a very mature African American woman. I rejoiced when Vanessa Williams won the Miss American contest. For me it was history in the making. I cared not that
    her eyes are blue and her complexion is fair. She is seen by the world as a black female. That was all and still all that matters to me. I am certainly not one of those persons who follows celebrities, tracking what they do or not do. However, when I see one of us in a role whether it’s as an aspiring doctor, actress, dancer, entertainer, CEO and/or the president of the United States, I rejoice. Because to get to that status was not an easy journey, as you pointed out about the current Miss American, Nina Davuluri. However, I believe you feel Miss Davuluri’s brownness makes her identify easier to digest, although she is Asian. Yet, she is being called the most degrading names by ignorant people. Therefore, it matters less whether an African American in a beauty pageant is dark brown, light brown, not brown or damn near white let’s celebrate that part of our heritage and culture. We do not come in a monolithic color.

    • stlluna7 says:

      I think a real shame is that some here may not know there is a large contingent of Brown Asian people, especially Thailand, Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines, to name a few. And for the record many of these cultures who suffered the brutality of war on their own land.

  5. Micheng says:

    Well said! And you know, shes an american. She couldve won it if shes not. I dont know whats the issue with the color amd i still dont quite get why there’s descrimination and racism. About beauty pageant, I was once also a contender in a beauty pageant. It doesnt really do any good even as a beauty queen. All it does is level up insecurities than others. They might look as astonishing while acting like they are secure, but they are not. They have more anxieties with their looks more than any other. Thats why some end up getting pastic surgeries. That being said, great article! This has relate me to what this woman said about the newly crowned Miss World 2013 which is Philippines.

    • Larry says:

      Having an Asian (Filipina) wife, I know that Jessica Sanchez, Manny Pacquaio and others bring a sense of National Pride. As some have stated here with Vanessa Williams, you know that the black community was proud. Likewise here and I think that while I disagree with the venue in general, specifically I take away the fact that the world is indeed changing.

      • Larry says:

        By the way, I am working at the International Festival in Raleigh next week. This will be my 2nd year working the PAANC. It all matters.

      • Micheng says:

        So true! I don’t see any wrong with any color at all, but america like i said on one of my blog has a division by color. Yes! Black community is surely rejoicing for they again proof that they can be part and contribute in different aspect of this society. I just recently educate myself that the first people in America according to scientists are Asian. Brown colored skin and now the world is rotating back to its original nature, the brown people are now reigning back its position.

    • Larry says:

      I love and respect the Asian culture and I am defensive of it also and yes I know the differences but one thing that I do know, is that Pinoy have been discriminated more than just about anyone yet you see during typhoons a smile on the face of the people. I want to educate people about the culture and even radio stations consider me Filpino brother because I care about the culture and will fight for it.

  6. normapadro says:

    I enjoyed it when Ms. Williams won in the 80’s. I also saw how they tried to degrade her with the photos. I knew there is more to these women than just winning a shared crown. They are special people. They work hard and deserve all the recognition.

  7. J Roycroft says:

    “African American”…Enough with the titles, especially the one coined by Jesse the Sloganmaster Jackson. Whats wrong with being a proud American?
    You made some very good points in your article, and well written also, however your comparison to the salaries of football jocks and cheerleaders was quite a stretch. The salaries earned by a dumb jock who will likely end his very short career in the NFL with serious permanent brain or other injuries in no way can be compared to that of a cheerleader.
    Congrats on winning the FP lottery.

  8. I would say, or rather HOPE that the majority of people in this country support her as our new Miss America. We always give light to the negative comments over the positive unfortunately so it seemed like more people were hating on her than probably were. A lot of people in the social media feeds were actually defending her which was nice:) The opinions of small minded people don’t concern me though, I’m just glad a brown girl won, and not just brown but a dark brown girl, not like the fair-skinned Indian girls they choose in Bollywood.

    Great post! Congrats on making it to Freshly Pressed:)

    xx,
    Rakhi

    • Larry says:

      Rahki,

      I agree with your sentiments regarding her as unfortunate or tragic because she dd get this title, so why rain on her parade? I was working with the Filipino yesterday at the International Festival in Raleigh. I love brown people especially and this is just my preference but I do not castigate a person for their successes.

  9. kldawson says:

    As we observe the male dominated cultures world wide it is easy to think that the war on women exists.

  10. Very well written insightful post. I am a fat, old, bald-headed man of little account, whose only value lies in the perfection of the Lord Jesus the Christ. My days of ogling women, which is to say lusting after them, is long since past. Good riddance! That said, praise the Lord that I can still appreciate a good-looking woman in the same way that I appreciate a good-looking car, boat, plane, building, or flower.

    As a Christian, I value women firstly, because of their faith, which is to say character; secondly, because of their talents, skills, and abilities, and lastly, because of their appearance and style. However, the first thing that I can see is their appearance and style. The rest may, or may not be, a disappointment. Since beauty pageants are secular, first screening for academic and professional achievement, including home management; then appearance and style, would be an improvement. It would still get down to the good-looking woman. It would just take a different route to get there. God bless you and yours, always!

  11. I couldn’t agree more with you able beauty pageants. I just can’t believe that in this day and age beauty pageants still exists for women. And what boggles my mind is that there are beauty pageants for babies and children. Talk about a terrible way to start your daughter off with having messed up views of how she should be perceived in life–to constantly be judged and be ok with that. Oy. Yes, I wish that beauty pageants would at least have real talent contests that placed value on real talent–not fake talent that many of the girls in the child and baby contests display.

  12. vieromero says:

    Reblogged this on Unzip These Lips and commented:
    excellent excellent piece. very well said

  13. iheartsiena says:

    Well said..its sad if you think about how this is the only medium to be treated equally, and yet racism is still raiding society, in particular social media!

    • stlluna7 says:

      Racism does exist and that part is just a sad reality but I do believe racism goes all ways with no culture or people immune from this failing of we humans. She is not a little brown girl, she is a woman who happens to be brown.

      While I agree that racism exists and that pageants are stupid, the Asian-lady won.

  14. Beautiful Imperfections says:

    Very well written. :)

  15. Amen!
    Its sad, but very true.

  16. DJBlackmore says:

    So true. Even in our so called modern world of sexual equality, I realise this is still so much a mans’ world. Many of us aspire to male acceptance; and in this number, I must in all honesty count myself. Validity through mens’ eyes is so indoctrinated, often times we don’t even realise it. Perhaps we have to look beyond it to find our true worth. Thanks for the post.

  17. damianth says:

    “What are we celebrating here? … Our right to have frat boys use our photos for rape joke memes about what they’d like to do to us?” -> Um, ok…bit of an extreme statement, dontcha think?

    “While boys are consistently encouraged to pursue the development of their skills and talents, even in 2013 women are still encouraged to focus on appearance.” -> More females then males are getting college education for some years now.
    Source: National Centre for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_200.asp

  18. eli says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful take. I happened to watch this documentary shortly before hearing about the Miss America pageant. It’s a pretty incredible film exploring the various prisons young women (specifically in India) find themselves being ushered into under the guise of being liberated – whether in a pageant or a militant training camp: http://www.worldbeforeher.com/

  19. Reblogged this on The Pretty Indian and commented:
    and being the brown girl will always be a thing :)

  20. Ashley Lam says:

    I like your post. Black women are the most stunning women on this planet. There are no ugly Black women, you know? I mean, Black women are full and sexy. OK, some White guys admitted that Black ladies are strong in bed. What else do you need from a girl? Yes, they are goody. So, there are many interracial marriages between Black ladies with white men, which is common.

    • missgacherindumba says:

      So much wrong with this response especially the part that plays up to myths about “african” sexuality: Ps, there really are some ugly one,

  21. […] it’s a lesson I keep learning over and over. Last year, when I wrote about Miss America, I pitched it to several outlets and none of them gave me the green light. I posted it on my own […]


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