Miss America: Empowering Or Embarrassing?

A revamped, "hip" Miss America pageant happened live on Saturday night, with ubiquitous Mario Lopez as the host. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty asks: Do you really care?

Producers tried to breathe life into this wheezing, aging franchise by adding a mirrored stage (Nashawaty notes it "made the whole thing look like it was being broadcast live from the Champagne Room at Cheetah's") and a "Loser's Lounge," where eliminated contestants had to sit and watch the show. And yet, the Miss America contest seems like a bizarre relic, a holdover from another era. Nashawaty writes:

Let's be honest, if these young women (most of whom looked well beyond the 17 to 24 age limit thanks to their knack for applying make-up with a trowel) really had any discernible talent beyond spouting rehearsed platitudes about how they plan to improve the state of the world with a tiara on top of their Texas-sized hairdos, they would have already signed up for Top Chef, Project Runway, or American Idol instead of slumming it on this low-rent cavalcade.

In any case, the new Miss America, Miss Indiana, Katie Stam, won a $50,000 scholarship by walking in a black bikini and heels as well as an an off-the-shoulder, white lace evening gown, then singing "Via Dolorosa" and denouncing the use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional athletes. She will become the goodwill ambassador for the Children's Miracle Network as a mandatory part of her reigning duties. But. Why does earning scholarship money involve putting on a swimsuit? An EW reader posting under the name "contestant" says: "As for the swimsuit portion (which is only 15 percent of the score btw), the only reason it still exists is because no one would watch if it did not have it. Its not the pageant that is shallow, its the American public!" Ah, good to know. But didn't Miss America begin as a whites-only beauty pageant slash tourist attraction? (And how come 27 of the of the 51 winners have been blonde?)

The real question is: Is the Miss America pageant outdated? Commenter "wgrrrl" on EW's website says no:

It makes me sad that this program is considered outdated now. I get the gripes about the swimsuit portion, but since when did it become passe' to be well-rounded? To be smart, talented (yes, and fit/pretty maybe), well-informed on current events, and not only passionate about your platform, but to put your TIME into volunteering in that area?

But another reader, Elizabeth, wrote:

Setting back the women's movement? I am a junior in college and a competitor in the Miss A. system AND I'M MINORING IN WOMEN'S STUDIES!!! I fully promote female empowerment and am extremely liberal in my views. I compete in pageants (this semester is paid for because of them) and I am a feminist!

Is the Miss America pageant feminist? Is tottering around in heels in order to get cash empowering?

Miss America: Does Anyone Care? [EW]
Work Of Being Miss America Lured Winner To Crown [AP]
Miss America [Wikipedia]