Is a New America Ready for the New Miss America?

One performed the first successful face transplant in the U.S. and is the youngest alumna of both the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and University of Wisconsin Madison School of Medicine. Another is a Harvard Law graduate running for Attorney General of the State of Illinois. And another graduated from Stanford and hosted a hit cable-news show, before helping to ignite a movement that radically changed this country, and arguably, the world. I’m talking, of course, about Miss America winners.

Never heard some of these stories? Neither had I.

Which is exactly the point Gretchen Carlson, winner of Miss America 1989 and the woman who exposed the degrading behavior of Roger Ailes, wants to make. And it’s why she’s enlisted a number of supporters, including Y&R (of which I am the proud CEO), to herald the Miss America competition into the modern age.

For years Miss America faced real branding challenges. For example, even today many are surprised to find out that the competition is for scholastic scholarships and is different from the “Trump beauty pageant,” Miss USA. This year, however, the organization’s branding challenges were compounded with cultural issues as well, when misogynistic emails exchanged by the organization’s executive leadership were leaked to the press. Miss America acted swiftly, and on January 2nd, announced Carlson as its new chairwoman.

Among the various aims of Miss America’s rebranding efforts under Carlson’s leadership were: 1. To differentiate itself from pageants like Miss USA, which are for-profit beauty contests. And 2. To transform itself into a female empowerment brand.

“We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment,” said Carlson. “We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement.”

In an effort to be part of this movement, the organization has not only updated its wording, now calling contestants “candidates” and dubbing the event as a “competition” rather than a “pageant,” but has even updated the evening-gown competition, allowing competitors to select attire of their choosing, and most radically, has eliminated swimsuits from the show entirely.

Says Carlson, “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge. And that means we will no longer have a swimsuit competition.”

No surprise that the ever-present trolls on social media were up in arms about the competition’s changes. One twitter user posted: “Miss America ‘beauty’ pageant will no longer factor in beauty. PROGRESSIVES RUIN EVERYTHING.”

While to some the epic changes driven by Carlson is yet another instance of the liberal elite out of control, akin to fake news and PC sensitivity, let’s be clear—the point of this competition is and has always been the granting of scholarships to women. So, while it has always celebrated, rewarded, and empowered remarkable women, the twitter reaction above underscores just how misunderstood the competition had become or just maybe how people wanted to see it.

What is fascinating to me is that the changes Miss America has made are simply the tip of the iceberg, and begs the question of how other female, typically beauty-centric brands are coping with the changes driven by #MeToo and #TimesUp.

This past week, The New York Times released an article on the Pirelli Calendar entitled, “The Pirelli Calendar Finally Makes Women Subjects Instead of Objects.” Historically, the Calendar features nudity. This year, it will not. Describing it as centered around the personality of its subjects, the article states, “Four mini-chronicles depict characters pursuing their passions — not of the flesh, but of the soul.” While some might argue that the much sought-after Pirelli Calendar has always been more about art than cheap garage pinup, what is clear is that brands slow to embrace ideas promoted by #MeToo are suffering and Pirelli wanted no part.

Miss America and other brands that have tried to keep up with the times and empower women like Aerie, for example (of which I’m a board member), stand a chance to really make a change. Miss America’s newest tagline, “Prepare great women for the world. Prepare the world for great women” is a call to arms. Are we—liberals and conservatives, all of us—ready to celebrate women who are empowered in their own right as we would want them to be?

Listen:

“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” —G.D. Anderson

And clearly, the new Miss America competition is doing just that.

What do you think?

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