America, Miss Oklahoma (Olivia Jordan) is your new Miss USA. After a three-hour broadcast that saw contestants dwindle from 50 to five, the 26-year-old model won out over Miss Maryland, Miss Nevada, Miss Rhode Island, and Miss Texas (the first runner up) by presumably embodying all things that pageant culture in 2015 holds dear. Which, I think, is supposed to be confidence. Aspiring to be a celebration of the “confidently beautiful,” the Miss USA pageant began with an intro on par with The Hunger Games' opening ceremony, in which we were greeted with a montage of contestants who told us they were “here to break the stereotypes” (which is great), before hosts Todd Newton, Alex Wehrley, and Julie Alexandria went on to remind us of how beautiful everybody was (which did less so). Of course, this “controversy” is far less groundbreaking than the media storm that came before it. In June, Miss USA co-owner Donald Trump publicly insulted and denounced Mexicans, claiming they bring drugs and crime to the United States. As a result, NBC and Univision refused to air the pageant, and judges and performers pulled out. So, obviously, the broadcast itself needed to steer away from anything . . . bold. Which also explains digestible replacement performers like Stefano Langone, Travis Garland, Adley Stump, and Felicia Barton who showed up, performed, and were clearly trying their best. In fact, most people in front of the camera were trying their best. The 50 hard-working career women vying for the Miss USA title oozed pageant professionalism, while voiceovers and behind-the-scenes moments sang the praises and importance of diversity. (Especially since it was established that many of the contestants are first generation American.) We learned the contestants were philanthropists, community leaders, politicians, lawyers, and activists. We heard them tell the hosts that friendship (see: Sisterhood) ranks before winning. We heard judge and former Miss USA Tara Conner share that this particular evening was her eight-and-a-half-year sober-versary. And then we saw 50 women walk and dance around a stage in bathing suits. Touted as “the [part of] the competition that will send the thermometer right into the red,” the contestants and judges declared this portion of the night to be terrifying (probably) but exhilarating (sure) for each woman — as information about their charity and community work was voiced alongside close-ups of their torsos. “Powerful women — we love ‘em!” Newton declared, alluding once more to the pageant's misunderstanding of empowerment. And not just because this moment led into the evening gown competition (in which each person is judged on how they cope with lights, cameras, and crowds, in addition to how they look), the declaration of Miss Photogenic USA (Miss Indiana), and then the crowning of Miss Congeniality (a tie between Miss Alaska and Miss Delaware).
The concept of empowerment is fluid, yes. There’s nothing wrong with wearing bathing suits and / or dancing while in them. All 50 contestants are grown-ass women in charge of their destinies, and went into Miss USA very aware of what the competition entailed. “Beauty isn’t always on the outside, it’s on the inside,” one competitor reminds in another behind-the-scenes montage. Which is important, since in addition to working hard on their physical selves, they also work in mentoring and recovery programs (as well as social work, counseling, and inciting change from political positions). So, yes: These are empowered women who also choose to wear bathing suits. What isn’t empowering is the judgement that surrounds those suits — or the constant reminder that Miss USA is (or was) a beauty pageant. By stressing confidence, inner beauty, self worth, and the importance of helping others, pageant marketers obviously want us to see the competition in a different light. The problem with that is, it’s hard to do so when we’re being blinded by close-up shots of abs. Close-up all you want — but you can’t talk breaking stereotypes while determining a woman’s worth by them. Which is what made the Q&A portion for the last five even more interesting. In an attempt to avoid anything Trump-tastic (or so we can assume) organizers stuck to questions that were relatively safe. Miss Oklahoma was asked what the next “hot [social] topic” would be. (She answered race relations; that it was time to award every person the same rights, privileges and opportunities — which is both smart and true.) Miss Texas was asked if CEO salaries should be capped. (She said no because they should be able to attain whatever they want — somewhere, Ayn Rand’s ghost is smiling.) Rhode Island was asked about if political correctness was a problem. (She got stumped.) Maryland was asked if the US should open their Cuban embassy. (Short answer: yes.) And Nevada thinks race relations could be improved if we could “group [them] together.” (She was nervous. I hope.) So were these answers great? No, because it’s a live-to-air pageant that allows for one minute on discussions that take thousands of words and hours of time. (I mean, at one point, Miss Texas said we should wait and see who wins the 2016 election in response to being asked who should be on the new $10 bill. Stress is weird.) If Miss USA is supposed to embody the supposed best parts of the United States, it’s interesting that only 15 minutes is allotted for questions and answers, and two hours are reserved for bodies and gowns. Especially since in addition to those aesthetics, these contestants really do have a lot to give. We’ve all seen Miss Congeniality: Pageants seem tiring and tough. At least we can say that this year, the pageant, although tainted by Trump, didn’t seem to embody his ... ethos. Contestants preached acceptance over hate. Judges (Conner) reminded that addiction is a disease, not a choice. One contestant even shared the story of her family’s homelessness. The contestants are not the issue. They’re just stuck in a world that’s changing slightly less slower than our own.