The year is 1968. The place, Atlantic City. More specifically, the boardwalk. A group of feminists have assembled, along with a few husbands and a female reporter for the New York Post, to protest the Miss America pageant (or document it).
Demonstrators toss their “feminine trapping” into a trashcan—makeup, fake lashes, and restrictive undergarments—as recounted by Susan Brownmiller in her women’s liberation memoir, “In Our Time.” After accosting passersby with questions like, “Don’t you want your daughter to aspire to something more than Miss America?” and crowning a live sheep with the rosette of victory, three demonstrators sneak into the live taping and set off stink bombs, landing one of them a day in the slammer. The reporter, attempting to spice up her lede with a blithe comparison to young men burning their draft cards, unwittingly coins the label “bra-burners” (though in fact no spark was lit).
It was heavy on the farce, but hey, it was funny. It was also the first time that most of those who witnessed or read about the hijinks ever considered that a beauty pageant might be harmful to women—not to individuals, perhaps, but to the greater cause of women’s equality. This was at a time, as Brownmiller describes, that virtually no one conceived of something called “the patriarchy” that was systematically depriving women of the rights to assert their ambitions, have children if and when they wanted to, and walk down the street without feeling threatened.
Fast forward to today and the news that the pageant (even the word feels cringingly dated in 2018) is doing away with its swimsuit competition. How swiftly the men burst onto their Twitter feeds with their rabble-rousing reactions, from pictures of women in burkas (predictable) to various versions of “the new #MissAmerica” with an image of a conventionally unattractive woman (still not funny).
Enough with the tacky digs and apologist arguments. Let’s take a cue from the “bra-burners” and assess the swimsuit competition for what it is.
First: the fitness line. Many of the pro-swimsuit faction (including former contestants and winners) are defending the contest as a “fitness competition” that requires participants to be “in the best shape of their lives,” so why are we punishing women for that?
To equate physical condition or ability with outward appearance, as if they go together on a point-for-point scale, is yet another myth that’s hurting women. “Fit” doesn’t have to look like Miss America, and the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t. Think of the most committed female athletes you know. Would they win a nationally televised, highly curated swimsuit competition (or have time to enter one)? If you feel your spotlit bikini moment was your most empowered and strong, good for you—but stop telling other women that it’s what “peak physical performance” has to mean, or implying that we should peg our athletic goals to a certain aesthetic.
Then there’s the argument, often trotted out in moments like these, that by our feminist, man-hating logic, women shouldn’t care at all about their physical appearance. But there’s an obvious difference between wearing makeup and figure-flattering clothing and being judged against other women in bikinis. One is feeling gratified by one’s own appearance; the other is appearing expressly for the sexual gratification of men. Lines about “celebrating women’s beauty” are weak attempts to mask this essential reason for being.
Also, let’s remember that there will always be plenty of outlets for conventionally attractive women to pose in swimsuits. This isn’t exactly tantamount to burning a national treasure. But I wager that it’s not really about that. Rather, the derision is rooted in male fear: that of losing one more platform by which they can control women by defining their worth, at least in part, by their fuckability.
Finally, why aren’t we talking about decision-maker Gretchen Carlson in terms of her tenacious suit against her harasser at FOX in pre-Weinstein 2016? Her story is a reminder that the bikini backlash is ultimately a distraction from the real and relevant problems women face today.
Miss America has long been strutting down the runway of irrelevance. It has every right to evolve with its time, and the real question is why it’s taken so long to catch up. If “2.0” will highlight inspiring women who are doing great things for the world, then I, for one, will look to next year’s competition with curiosity—for the first time.
Frances F. Denny is an artist and photographer whose work investigates the development of female selfhood and identity.