This Sunday, Vanessa Williams will be the head judge in Atlantic City for the 95th annual Miss America Pageant. It is, like most everything related to Miss America, a stunt: Williams’s presence is news because 32 years ago, near the end of her year as the nation’s first black Miss America, Penthouse magazine published photos of her posing naked with another woman. Williams was given 72 hours to resign, which she did.
For those of us old enough to remember, and perhaps especially those of us who were at an age (9, in my case) to absorb the incident’s messages about body, race, sexuality, shame, and American womanhood, Williams’s reign as Miss America left a pretty indelible mark. It effectively conveyed ugly truths about how women become celebrated in America, and about how closely the very same qualities that make them appealing can be tied to their dismissal and disgrace.
It’s hard to describe, for those who’ve grown up with a more diffuse and diverse pop-cultural landscape, what a big deal the Miss America Pageant used to be and what an even bigger deal it was when, in 1983, Vanessa Williams won it. There simply weren’t many African-American women offered up by white media as aspirational figures. The few black women appearing on television and in magazines were often depicted either as mammies or as emasculating, angry, or hypersexualized Sapphires and Jezebels. That (white) America might enthusiastically embrace a young black woman as nationally emblematic, as someone for little girls to look up to, was exciting. This was before the premiere of The Cosby Show, before Whitney Houston released Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson released Control, two years before Oprah Winfrey launched her daily talk show.
Of course the country was brimming with brilliant and inspiring black women, but the moment she had a twinkly tiara placed on her head, Williams became a household name in ways that many others never would. In 1984, this white girl knew all about Vanessa Williams, but little about Flo Kennedy, the legendary activist who had led the group Radical Women in protest of Miss America on racist and sexist grounds 15 years earlier. I could recognize Williams anywhere, but not Shirley Chisholm, the New York congresswoman and former presidential candidate who would say of Williams’s victory, “Thank God I have lived long enough that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America” and saw the win as a sign that “the inherent racism in America must be diluting itself.”
Chisholm’s view was perhaps overly optimistic. Williams’s family was inundated with death threats during her tenure, some of which, according to her mother, with whom she co-wrote her 2013 memoir You Have No Idea, contained pubic hair, semen, spit and included messages such as “YOU’RE DEAD, BITCH,” “You’ll Never Be Our Miss America,” and “You’re all black scum.” Williams wrote of learning that after her win, former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley turned to the pageant chaperone and asked, “Are you ready to go to Harlem now?” She recalled hearing beloved talk-show host Johnny Carson joke about how if we had our first black Miss America, the contest must have been judged by Mr. T. She also described how her fellow Miss America contestant Deneen Graham had returned home to a cross burning on her lawn after becoming the first black Miss North Carolina.
It was clearly no small thing to see a black woman publicly acknowledged not just as beautiful and talented and smart, but as the most beautiful and talented and smart in a field of other American women (though we all know “talented and smart” is weighted far less heavily than the prerequisite of “beautiful”). And it is certainly true that public acknowledgment of Williams’s beauty, given this nation’s long history of brutality toward and denigration of black women’s bodies, was historically meaningful in and of itself. But it was also problematic, reductive, and ultimately dangerous.
Miss America is open only to women who have never been married, who have never been pregnant (though Williams would reveal in 2013 that she’d had an abortion as a teen), who do not drink or smoke in public, and who are, of course, traditionally feminine. It is open, in other words, to women who give the appearance of being imminently touchable, yet untouched, pleasingly sexual, yet pure. It rewards women who are alluring in a way that the culture demands they be alluring (thin, pneumatic, smiling, eager) but voids them — either by not including them at all, or as we know from Williams’s experience, by punishing them — if they have traded on that same allure in any way besides trying to be Miss America.
Never mind that the contest itself trades on them, that the ads playing alongside it on network television use bodies just like the ones competing to sell beer and cars. The rule is that the women themselves must never have used their bodies for their own pleasure or profit, must never have allowed anyone else but Miss America to use them either, must never have had those bodies used against their will.
Williams was not a pageant kid. She began her Miss America progression in 1983, as a junior at Syracuse University with a great voice and big ambitions for a career in theater, because she needed the scholarship money. She likely won because she came across as smart, talented, confident, and focused, all qualities that Miss America likes to say it values in its continued insistence that its real mission is the dispersal of college scholarships. She wrote in her memoir about how she needed help from a coach for only one question: why pageant contestants had to compete in swimsuits. She was told to say, “A fit body reflects a fit mind,” surely one of the most pernicious, yet persistent, lies pressed on American women.
Two years before she was Miss America, Vanessa Williams had been working as an assistant to a photographer and had posed for nude, sexual photos. I recall so clearly the intimations from adults at the time that the photos were really bad. I understand now that what that meant was that they were pictures of her with other women, and thus emblematic of an extra sexual perversion. Williams told People magazine in 1984, “I’ve let other women down and I’ve let the whole black community down, and I hate that. I made a terrible error in judgment and I know I’ll have to pay for it as long as I live. But I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut and somehow I am going to make people believe me.”
And of course she would go on to do so: After the “scandal,” Williams had a very successful career as a late-’80s pop star, then a stage, film, and television actress who’s been nominated for Grammy, Emmy, and Tony awards. But at that moment, to a 9-year-old, what all this added up to, somehow, was that there were distinct categories of women: There were Miss Americas, and there were sluts (and slutty lesbians), and these were mutually exclusive categories. What I was made to understand was that Williams had appeared to be one kind of woman — a talented history-maker who looked gorgeous and sang beautifully and whom we might all try to emulate — but that it had been revealed that she was in fact a very different kind of woman, a dirty kind who had made poor choices and whom we should definitely not emulate, even though nothing about the photos changed the fact that Williams was smart, gorgeous, and talented. Even more horrifying was that, like so many other “firsts,” Williams was carrying an enormous representational burden when the reverse judgment on her value came down, leaving this 21-year-old woman to feel, heartbreakingly, that she had let down “the whole black community.”
In an interview this week, Williams told ABC’s Robin Roberts that the issue had come down to “two drastically different images”: “It was Miss America who’s really kind of untouched … and then there was this woman in a picture that was exactly the polar opposite of purity. And I was a normal kid in the middle.”
This is the schizophrenia at the heart of late girlhood. Young women know that they should strive to meet traditional beauty standards, standards that remain pretty white — they must be thin, expose exactly the right amount of smooth flesh, must smile and be friendly and have lustrous hair — in order to be able to compete for society’s attention and approval, in order to be considered good. At the same time, and at the same age, we get the message that the beauty that makes us count also might make us trouble, that we must learn to control our appeal, not let anyone take advantage of it, and certainly not use it to our own advantage, lest we get labeled bad. We are, of course, most of us, normal kids in the middle, living in all kinds of bodies and striving to determine who we are, what we want, what we think, and how what we look like will play into all of that. We are made keenly aware too early that our aesthetics are the key to being seen in the world, yet might also pave the way to our devaluation.
What’s wrong with Miss America is that it structurally reproduces this reality for women and girls: You can’t get on the stage without (a certain kind of) beauty — that meaningless, cruel, and precarious measure — but the same beauty, when curdled by sexuality in any form, will earn you derision and dismissal from the stage. There she is, Miss America.
This morning TMZ is reporting that circumstances surrounding Williams’s return are in question. According to the site, it seems that Williams believed her appearance on Sunday’s broadcast would include an apology from pageant officials to her, for having forced her resignation. Pageant organizers — still crazy-mean after all these years, apparently — believed that it would include an apology from Williams. There’s obviously no question about which direction an apology should go, but even in the scenario in which Miss America was going to do right by Williams, the happy end was meant to be the reinstatement of that damn crown. None of that undoes damage, or makes the whole spectacle any less damaging.
I realize that getting mad at the Miss America Pageant on feminist terms is a little like getting mad at Road Runner on behalf of coyotes: The pageant’s job is to irritate feminists. It was founded in 1921, not coincidentally right after the passage of the 19th Amendment, its hokey sashes and parades and competition between women a brisk anti-feminist tonic after decades of suffrage activism, in which women had paraded alongside each other in different kinds of sashes. And to some degree, feminists have won: Only a tiny fraction of America cares at all about Miss America anymore. Just over 7 million viewers watched last year’s contest, compared to the roughly 17 million who watched Williams win, or the 27 million who tuned in when Lee Meriwether got the crown in 1954.
But that doesn’t make it any less troubling that the woman whose experience perhaps most dramatically emblematized the pageant’s shortsighted double standards — and who has spent the three decades since transcending its injustices by succeeding in the realms she aimed for long before she donned an evening gown or was forced to take off her crown — is returning to the scene of the crime, to inflict the same limited form of judgment on another crop of women, in front of another generation of girls.