Brains vs. Beauty: Which Will Be Crowned?

Since 1921, the Miss America pageant has captured the attention of the nation annually. Over the last 96 years the pageant has created controversy and skepticism of the overall motives associated with the Miss America brand. However, what you might not know is that as a non-profit organization, Miss America provides over $40 million each year in scholarships to the over 12,000 young women who compete in state and local competitions all over the nation. Despite these scholastic contributions, Miss America and its contestants are under constant scrutiny for their focus on the female body, image, beauty and talent, allowing little room for the public to see the organizations intended image.


If you tuned in to the 2015 Miss America pageant on Sunday, September 14, you’d have been delighted with over 50 Tony Bowls evening gowns, 16 Catalina designer swimsuits, 8 well-rehearsed talents, but only 5 20-second interview question answers. Throughout the competition scores are calculated as follows: Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit 15%, Evening Wear 20%, Talent 35%, Private Interview 25% and On-Stage Question 5%. Looking at these numbers, it’s easy to understand how so many viewers have become skeptical of the pageants true aims. These facts leave us asking: How can an organization that claims to be founded on improving women’s education host a pageant that is primarily scored on superficial beauty?


Although the pageant judges hold private interviews prior to the televised competition, these are not seen by the public. With the overwhelming majority of the televised pageant focused on the physical appearance and selected talent of each contestant it is hard for us, as viewers, to believe that the final decision is based on intellect. Because we do not see the private interviews and are only shown the 20-second On-Stage interview portion, there is minimal emphasis on the contestant’s ability to share her ideas on current events/issues cognitively and knowledgeably.

As popularity of the Miss America pageant has grown, the organization seems to be straying from its original platform concept. While the pageant has always had a beauty portion, the increased focus on the importance of beauty and the “ideal” female body have created negative backlash toward the brand. Looking at Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST) we can see that the cultural obsession with “how a woman should look” has changed the outputs of the organization. As the organization has evolved to basing so much of the final score on lifestyle, fitness, talent, and beauty its current image goes against what Miss America claims to stand for. The organization has adapted its structure over the years to meet the demands of what viewers want to see. While the televised pageant remains popular, drawing over 7 million viewers, the numbers were down 15 percent from last year’s pageant making accelerated skepticism clear. Despite this drop in ratings and increase in negative feedback, Miss America is sure to remain a valued tradition in American culture.

-Angelica DiPaolo, Morganne McIntyre, Anderson McNaull, Madeline O’Connor, Rachel White

10 thoughts on “Brains vs. Beauty: Which Will Be Crowned?

  1. The Miss America Pageant is certainly a great artifact to examine and you have brought up a great point in that the scholarship and personal development portions of the contest itself and pageant culture more generally can be overlooked. AST is a great lens through which to view the pageant. That said, I would challenge the assertion that the contest has become MORE focused on beauty. While the stage portions certainly seem to emphasize that there are video packages that have done more to suggest there are other dimensions to determining the winners. The early years didn’t even have interviews much less those that addressed controversial issues. But your point still has merit in that most people’s perceptions of the brand come from the televised content. Your headline for the blog is their biggest perception challenge. The point of the contest as they wish it were perceived is that women can be BOTH and the goal is to celebrate the women that seem to do both (along with grace, style and high moral character) at a high level. How would you solve it? Would you put the full interviews online? The Academy Awards have a lot more awards each year than they televise, those are listed elsewhere. So the Academy may seem like at it cares about is actors and not technicians and sound designers, etc. Seems like a similar challenge. If they asked you, what would you suggest they do to continue to stay contemporary and move perceptions toward a more holistic appreciation of the contest and its winners?

    • Dr. Olsen,

      As Miss America was aired this week, our group thought it would be a great topic to delve into for this weeks discussion of image. You make a great point by mentioning the video packages. That is something we hadn’t considered. If these video packages were shown with more frequency as the pageant was aired, we think it would put a different spin on the pageant. It would show viewers the importance of scholarship permeates through the pagaent. In addition, if the Miss America interviews were able to be viewed from the website it would show the organization’s mission and commitment to scholarship. By being able to access these interviews, it would show more of each woman’s personality and allow viewers to learn more about each contestant. Lastly, if Miss America spent more TV time interviewing contestants or had more than the top 5 contestants being interviewed, it would affirm the theme of scholarship. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I am one of those who tune in every year to watch the annual Miss America Pageant. I love to look at all of the dresses, talents, and hear all of the women’s answers to the challenging questions that are presented. I do believe however that the competition is solely based on beauty. However, the impact that Miss America has on the U.S. may it be representing charities and traveling to less fortunate countries, the role of Miss America is to benefit and represent the U.S in a positive light.

    • Megan,
      We couldn’t agree with you more! It is a shame that there is such a negative view of the pageant considering its strong emphasis on the beauty aspect, but overall the role of Miss America is very positive. Shortly after we posted this blog there was a story released about some scandal surrounding Miss America’s past decisions and actions in college. It was interesting to us to see how she would handle the situation, as well as the Miss America Organization’s reaction to the accusations.

      Kira started a blog just days after the scandal went viral introducing herself as the new Miss America and took the time to discuss the accusations. In addition, the organization stated in an interview with Erin Ryan, at Jezebel, “Kira has been fully transparent with the Miss America Organization about her termination from [her] sorority. It’s unfortunate that this incident has been exploited to create a storyline that distracts from what we should be focusing on: Kira’s impressive academic achievements at Hofstra University, including earning a triple major from the Honors College and her commitment to serving her community. Kira is an exceptional ambassador for the Miss America Organization, and we are excited to be a part of her journey as a force for good across our nation, promoting education and service and working to empower young women.”

      Although we still feel that the pageant is primarily based on beauty and not brains, it is refreshing to see just transparency from both sides of a scandal allowing for more attention on Kira’s positive achievements, rather than just a strong defensive image repair strategy. Thanks for your comment!

  3. While it is great to see all the girls in their gowns and to see their talent, I feel that it is also important for them to focus more on the interview section. I had not realized that this was their previous intention and that over the years it had changed due to our constant desire to see how women should look. I grew up going to school with a girl who became Miss North Carolina and was in the running to be Miss USA. She was extremely focused on her looks and her talent. She does have other great qualities that one would see during her interview time; however, with it only be 20-seconds long and only worth 5%, the audience is not able to see the organizations intended image or who she truly is.

    • Madison,

      Thanks for the comment! We agree that with interviews being private and on-stage questions accounting for only 20 seconds for 5 contestants that scholarship isn’t shown in the regards it needs to be. How do you think Miss America could combat this?

      – Rachel

  4. The idea of pageants, their intentions, and their purpose, has always been one I’ve struggled with. Growing up, I had many friends who competed in pageants. I even went through a stage when I begged my mother to let me be in one. That stage quickly passed. However, because of my friends, I was able to get an inside perspective on the pageant girl lifestyle. If there is one thing it showed me, it takes years and thousands of dollars to mold these girls into a woman that would win Miss America. In my opinion, the money spent on the girls by their parents could have been put into a college fund and would have equaled or even surpassed the amount they would win in scholarship money.

    • Sarah,

      I too went to school with many girls that participated in pageants and was able to see an “insider view” that many people do not get to see. Do you believe that the majority of money is spent on dresses, makeup, hair, and other physical elements? If so, do you think there should be a limit on the amount that each contestant can spend on these categories? Would that level the playing field? Thanks for commenting!

      – Rachel

  5. In years past I have enjoyed watching the Miss America pageant to see the dresses and talents, although I knew scholarship was talked about as an important part of the pageant world, I never saw it communicated during the broadcast. As years have past and I’ve grown in my beliefs pageants are not something I even care to watch. They seem superficial and based on which girl has the best “team” to prepare them for the crown. Reading above that the women are interviewed by judges but that portion is not aired disappoints me. It is important for younger girls to know that they are beautiful no matter how they look in a swimsuit. Women should be confident in their beliefs and looks and know that they don’t need affirmation and a crown to be beautiful.

    • Jessica,

      Thanks for commenting! I agree – in my analysis of Miss America, scholarship was not the first element that stood out to me. If interviews were live do you think the Miss America organization could change the stigma about the pageant world?

      – Rachel

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