Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Hilary Levey Friedman
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America (2020) (IMDB)

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America
Hilary Levey Friedman

Beacon Press

August 2020


With an all-star cast tackling a complicated and relevant historical event, Mrs. America was destined to produce headlines. Indeed, after the first three episodes dropped on 15 April there wasn't a shortage of think pieces about FX on Hulu's new miniseries.

Lost in many of the articles is one of the most intriguing aspects of the show: its name. Why invoke a beauty pageant when the series is about a brutal feminist political battle?

Mrs. America presents the female leaders on both sides of the fight over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. Congress submitted the constitutional amendment to state legislatures for ratification in 1972. Thirty-eight states needed to ratify within seven years for the ERA to be added to the Constitution. This seemed like it should be a breeze: who would vote against equality for women?

The ERA sailed through the first 28 states. But then came the STOP (Stop Taking Our Privileges) ERA campaign, a group of antifeminist women who coalesced around conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly. By the 1979 deadline the other side, led by founders of the National Women's Political Caucus including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, had stalled out with only 35 states in the plus column.

What marriage meant was one of the core differences between the two groups of women. The latter group likened marriage to prison, while the former venerated a "MRS" degree as the ultimate goal for all women.

While the "Mrs." is very important to the women of Mrs. America, so is beauty pageant culture. The first episode, "Phyllis", exploits some of the most enduring pageant tropes. The opening scene introduces us to "Mrs. Fred Schlafly" as she struts down a runway in a stars and stripes bikini and heels. Immediately after the opening credits, Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) appears on the television show "Conservative Viewpoint" to discuss national defense policy.

Right before going on air, the host tells her, "Don't forget to smile… with teeth." The implication is that despite the seriousness of a woman's pursuits, her looks and amiability are paramount.

Another popular 2020 streaming release also invokes beauty pageants in its title: Lana Wilson's documentary about Taylor Swift, Miss Americana. Miss Americana covers country and pop star Swift's early career, highlighting her desire to please and look the part of unobjectionable musical princess.

Both Mrs. America and Miss Americana play up the stereotype of the "good girl". She is patriotic, yes, but she also seeks approval, often from men, along with a lasting relationship. Part of that approval has to do with being thin (weight is mentioned often in both shows).

By suggesting pageantry in their titles, Mrs. America and Miss Americana use symbolism to prime the viewer to be thinking about a one-dimensional all-American queen of femininity. Schalfly and Swift are the lithe blonde heroines, who some would say promoted a happy and simple image of women. However, as Mrs. America and Miss Americana ultimately reveal, American women can rarely be reduced to such basic portrayals.

Swift, for example, stops worrying about what others think of her when she finds a new public and political voice following a 2017 sexual assault trial and around the 2018 midterm elections. And Schlafly is the ultimate oxymoron—traveling, organizing, writing, and even running for office as she advocated for American women to stay home to support their husbands and children.

Turns out beauty pageants are also more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.Turns out beauty pageants are also more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more. For example, Gloria Steinem competed in an Ohio beauty pageant in the 1950s, seeing pageants as one way to access scholarships and escape smaller town life.

Still, as Steinem says in the second episode of Mrs. America, which is named after her, "I don't want people listening to me because I have a pretty face." Representative Bella Abzug, one of the major leaders of the Women's Movement counters, "Who cares why they're listening, they're listening!" The implication is that, yes, looks matter, but it's not wrong to capitalize on them if that can amplify your voice.

The actual Mrs. America Pageant, which began in 1938, ended in 1968 in the wake of protests at the Miss America Pageant… Only to return in 1977 in the midst of the ERA showdown. Beauty pageants and their culture are clearly entwined with feminism. Feminist battles fought by the Mrs. Americas continue to be fought today by Miss Americanas—who may yet pass the ERA after it was, at last, ratified by state number 38, Virginia, in January.

* * *

Prof. Hilary Levey Friedman is a sociologist and expert on beauty pageants, childhood and parenting, competitive afterschool activities, and popular culture who teaches courses in the Department of Education at Brown University. She holds degrees from Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Cambridge. Her book, Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, publishes August 2020 from Beacon Press.




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