This past Monday, ABC hosted the annual Miss America pageant. Nina Davuluri was crowned as the winner, which keeps the crown in New York for another year. Her victory, however, was not without controversy as she became the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned as Miss America. Almost predictably, Twitter blew up with racist Tweets about her ethnicity, religion, and American-ness (by an apparently very angry, and confused Twitter mob).
That’s been the story, and I’m not going to fault anyone for reporting on her being the first winner of Indian descent, nor will I fault anyone for calling out the ridiculous Twitter garbage that accompanied her win. But I wasn’t on Twitter while it was airing, so I wasn’t aware that was even going on.
What caught my eye while watching was the Q&A portion of the pageant. The five finalists are called to center stage in random order to answer a question from one of the judges. The pageant brands itself as more than just a beauty pageant or swimsuit competition. And it is. Along with this Q&A, there is a talent section. (Off-stage, contestants must pick a platform/issue that matters to them, go through an interview process, partner with many non-profits and participate in philanthropy events, and the Miss America organization gives out a lot of scholarship money.) Nearly all of the contestants are quite talented and have achieved a great deal.
But the whole on-stage Q&A portion is extremely flawed, and it puts the contestants in a no-win situation (granted, it is only a small portion of the judging criteria). If you give “fluff questions” then people will mock the questions as “lacking substance,” not to mention that the questions will likely induce some seemingly “thoughtless” answers. But give them complex questions with only twenty seconds to answer, and watch them say almost nothing (be careful not to offend or take a side!) for about twenty seconds…AKA a few sentences. Two questions stuck like sore thumbs as illustrating the latter problem.
One asked if the US had an ethical responsibility to intervene in other countries in different situations; specifically, what should the US do about Syria and the chemical weapons charges…
Move over Obama, Miss America has the answer to the question that has been the most discussed and debated international issue of the past few weeks. And in less than 20 seconds! Just like that, all will be right with the world. Riiiiight.
But the one that got to me even more than that question was the question posed to Miss Florida. This question began citing statistics that minorities having disproportionately low incomes, high unemployment, and high incarceration rates. It then posed a simple question: How do we address these issues? (Oh, in 20 seconds or less, please.)
Really?! Come on. You want Miss Florida to come up with anything even resembling an answer that will solve race issues, inequality, and the prison systems… three of the biggest, most complex, and historically grounded and institutionalized issues that exist in the US (and even around the world)!? And in 20 seconds! Well, Miss Florida gave it the old college try, and got about two sentences in, trying to relate her own father/family situation to the question before she was cut off for time.
What a terrible and impossible task. Solve these huge, complex issues (that scholars, policy-makers, activists, and many others have spent their entire lives working on but have yet to failed to do). Go for it. I dare you.
Check out this video for the Q&A (3:30 – 3:50 for the question about race and poverty):
So you can probably tell that I think this whole thing is an exercise in futility, and by its very design (whether intentional or not) set up for the contestants to fail. If you’ve “done well” you’ve probably given a bland answer that basically restated the question without adding much…but it was done fluidly and with confidence. If you stutter or appear to not to recognize the issue or if you’ve been too bland (it’s a thin line), then prepare to be mauled in the media in a “gotcha moment”.
If Miss America wants to brand itself as more than a beauty contest (which they have done for many years), then I’m all for them continuing that movement. They seem to do lots of good philanthropy, non-profit, and scholarship work. They have a talent portion of the competition. Each contestant has selected a platform/issue that is meaning to her. Go that route. Don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes with one ridiculous 20 second timed response Q&A session (and fail to give that portion any real weight as a criterion). It doesn’t add anything to the competition, and it doesn’t fool us into thinking that it is somehow a more “distinguished” pageant because of it (though I have no doubt that, given time, most of the contestants would be extremely well-versed on a wide array of topics).
My solution would be to simply cut this portion of the competition. Cut it, and find a substitute. Unless you actually give them some time and have a bit of back and forth dialogue, it is useless. One alternative would be to have the finalists give a 2-3 minute speech/presentation on what their chosen platform is and why it is important to them and should be to us. It might be less extemporaneous, but I think it might be more meaningful. We would gain some insight into what issues really matter to each contestant and why. It would also help to raise awareness for that particular platform, which is one of the missions of the pageant.
There are certainly other alternatives could showcase the pageant as more than just about looks. But let’s please let the Q&A session fade into the mist. It’s twenty seconds that no one will miss. And congratulations again, Miss New York. Don’t let the ignorant Twits get to you.