Miss America’s UN-American Values

Rebecca, Gloria Steinem and I applaud you.  I will point out that in order to be a contestant for Miss America, a young lady needs to be between the ages of 17-24. So while this old married lady actually was married at the ripe old age of 22, the average age of marriage in this country is older than 24  which could be why you don’t see more married women beating down the doors of the competition.  That said, the fact that my husband made an honest woman out of me at such a young age should not prevent me from strutting my stuff in the pageant. The size of my stuff, however, is more likely my barrier to entry.

The fact is that the Miss America pageant–and really every beauty pageant–seems steeped in what now seem like a completely politically incorrect endeavor–the entire industry is essentially devoted to leering at a girl in a bikini. For those of you who think that Miss America is about more than beauty, I dare you to tell me the talent of Miss America 2009.  The fact that it doesn’t seem unsavory to stare at any woman, but only unsavory to stare at the half naked body of another man’s wife is in itself a throwback. But since female chess matches don’t make for good tv ratings, the pageants will go on.

Don't put a ring on it...

Don't put a ring on it...

I do think you’ve hit upon a really interesting issue: why is it that a pageant is able to get away with such obvious age and marital status discrimination?  Under the law, an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of age or marital status in making a decision about interviewing, hiring, or promoting any applicant. So the first issue is whether or not the ability to participate in the Miss America Pageant is, in fact, a job application. I would argue that it is; becoming Miss America confers a title on a person who receives money from the pageant management in exchange for the completion of duties.  Hard to see how that doesn’t qualify as employment.

As for whether or not allowing entrants ages 17-24 constitutes age discrimination, I’d say it does not. First, it’s not everyone who is protected by age discrimination prohibitions–only employees or applicants ages 40 and over. And since I don’t see a lot of 40 year olds (myself included) actually applying for the title I’d say it’s a non-issue. Additionally, I think there’s some argument that no one wants to see the 40+ crowd strutting around in a bikini so I’m comfortable with the argument that the age range is actually a bona fide occupational qualification for the job.

But back to your point: what’s marital status got to do with it?

How is it legal for the Miss America Pageant to discriminate against women who are married? Ultimately, I think that it isn’t legal.

The problem is that in order to file a discrimination lawsuit, you actually have to have standing to do so. And by standing, I don’t mean standing around in a bikini and high heels. I mean legal standing–a vested personal interest in the case. So until the next Leona Gage comes along–a woman who actually is a valid Miss America contestant harmed by the discrimination on the part of the pageant–and is willing to take up the case, the rules will likely stand until either the pageant management realizes the error of its ways or the EEOC steps in (which seems unlikely given its already overburdened caseload and complete lack of popularity already).

Perhaps Gloria Steinem was onto something, though. Maybe if we rename it the Ms. America Pageant, we wouldn’t have silly rules about whether or not someone who has committed herself to another should have the right to strut her stuff in a bikini and high heels while twirling a baton and whistling Dixie.

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