So you might have seen screencaps of the fake 20-Seconds Miss America Question segment, which came from this episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In this segment he gives historical analysis of Miss America, compares it to Miss USA, and challenges some of its claims.
It would be a little easy to bash pageants from the objectifying-women angle - which can dangerously lead into femme-shaming. But John Oliver has taken a different tack with his Miss America criticism, through really powerful investigative journalism: he investigates Miss America’s claim of “providing $45 million in scholarships for women”, and finds that Miss America’s claim is potentially fraudulent.
From initial research of tax returns for the various Miss America pageants, as well as contacting related universities, Oliver and company have found that Miss America is using deceptive language and accounting to make up that $45 million number. What it really should be “up $45 million in scholarships potentially available" - because they’re either adding up all the scholarships offered, even when a contestant is only able to claim one (e.g. scholarships from multiple universities in a state), or they’re multiplying one scholarship by the number of contestants in a state, even though only one can win. You can see the specific examples in this Upworthy transcript.
What’s not mentioned is that the scholarships seem to be tied to a specific university; there doesn’t seem to be any scholarships that can be applied to the contestant’s choice of school. (And none of them seem to apply to international study.) I don’t know if this is true; Oliver’s research and findings are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Sadly, none of the research actually disproves Miss America’s claim, because compared to other women-only scholarships - such as the three mentioned on the show, from the Society of Women Engineers, the Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation, and the Jeanette Rankin Fund - they really are the largest scholarship provider.
It is true that Miss America has a lot of advantages compared to those organisations: it’s been around a long time, has close partnerships with large companies and organisations, is part of an international network, and is world-famous. But I’ve also long felt that we really suck at taking care of our own sometimes. We call for people to create more scholarships and opportunities for women, especially those who are marginalised in other ways, but we don’t support those who are trying to do so. We don’t put our money where our mouth is. We expect the Government or some big provider to take care of it, and then feign surprise when they don’t care.
Here are a few things I hope happen as a result of this Last Week Tonight segment:
1. An investigative media project on Miss America’s purported scholarships - continuing the work that they already started on prior to the taping of this episode. I’m imagining a regularly updated website, with updates on air every so often, but this can be a bigger project - with another news organisation or a watchdog. Their research hints at corruption, which needs to be taken down.
2. Listings of scholarships for women, with avenues for donating to or otherwise supporting those scholarships - I feel like this thing exists already, so if it does let’s support that resource. More resources are helpful, though, especially if you want to focus on a specific country or demographic or subject area.
3. The creation and availability of other opportunities for professional and academic advancement for women - obviously pageants fills a need. It provides income, livelihood, and a career path. In some countries (such as India) it’s a sure-fire way to get into the entertainment industry, perhaps the only way in. It’s a community builder, a way to build pride and support. If you are a minority, it’s especially important for visibility - hell, Miss America’s way more diverse than some hipster magazines or radical activist circles.
In a time where getting jobs or education is expensive and difficult, it’s understandable that people will look to any avenue possible to survive - and for some people that’s through pageantry. And the pageants do require contestants to work on social justice issues for their term (though it’d be interesting to do a report on whether they follow up on this). If we open up more opportunities, women can really make informed decisions on why they want to participate - and more power to them if they wish to be in a beauty pageant anyway.