Sink or Swim: Deciding the Fate of the Miss America Swimsuit Competition


  • Grace Slapak Tulane University


The Miss America beauty pageant has faced widespread criticism for the swimsuit portion of its show. Feminists claim that the event promotes objectification and oversexualization of contestants in direct contrast to the Miss America Organization’s (MAO) message of progressive female empowerment. The MAO’s position as the leading source of women’s scholarships worldwide begs the question: should women have to compete in a bikini to pay for a place in a cellular biology lecture? As dissent for the pageant mounts, the new head of the MAO Board of Directors, Gretchen Carlson, and the first all-female Board of Directors must decide where to steer the faltering organization. The MAO, like many other businesses, must choose whether to modernize in-line with social movements or whole-heartedly maintain their contentious traditions. When considering the MAO’s long and controversial history, along with their recent scandals, the #MeToo Movement, and the complex world of television entertainment, the path ahead is anything but clear. Ultimately, Gretchen Carlson and the Board of Directors may have to decide between their feminist beliefs and their professional business aspirations. Underlying this case, then, is the question of whether a sufficient definition of women’s leadership is simply leadership by women or if the term and its weight necessitate leadership for women. Will the board’s final decision keep this American institution afloat? And, more importantly, what precedent will it set for women executives who face similar quandaries of identity?


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