If you haven't been paying attention, the newest Miss America of 2013, Mallory Hagan, lives in Brooklyn. But before you get to reeling from the notion that the epicenter of "all things ironic and progressive" could produce something so quaint, so old-fashioned, so retrograde, take comfort in knowing that she's actually from Tennessee, by way of Alabama. Whew. That makes more sense. You know, the South, where tradition holds on tighter than a pair of Spanx? After all, as Hagan's Brooklyn neighbors pointed out, "We don't believe in beauty pageants."
A New York Times op-ed piece titled "The Ugly Side of the Southern Belle" probes further when it contends, "Next to winning college football titles, beauty contests seem to be something young Southerners do particularly well. "The modern Southern belle," the sportswriter Frank Deford once said, has "long been the Pageant ideal." But why?" Shall we? Hint: The reasons aren't always as pretty as a picture.
But first, a few facts:
From 1921, when the contest began in Atlantic City, through World War II, only one woman representing a former Confederate state won the competition. Then, beginning in 1947, when a woman from Memphis earned the top honor, the fortunes of Southern contestants rose precipitously. From 1950 to 1963, seven southerners were crowned (each served the following year), including back-to-back wins by Mississippians in 1958 and 1959 - though southerners made up only one-fifth of the possible winners.
Wikipedia lists back-to-back-Mississippi winners in 1959 and 1960, not '58 and '59, as stated in the op-ed, but that quibble aside, what possible reason could there be for a high concentration of women in the South knocking it out on the Miss America stage?
In 1987, a Southern Magazine piece asked the same question:
Only the vain or foolish will ask a mirror, or some other dangerous implement, who's the fairest of them all. The question at hand is why so many southern women ask that question, and why they hear the desired answer so often. Southern magazine placed this intriguing matter in novelist Beverly Lowry's capable hands. Her September cover story works from the confounding statistic that eight of the 10 semifinalists in last year's Miss America pageant were from the South.
The answers were as elusive as the Southern mystique the rest of the country apparently finds so intoxicating.
"They're professionals," observes a northern contestant. That may be — the 1986 Miss America, Mississippian Susan Akin, was a veteran of 50 contests before she won the big one. And the South has more beauty pageants. "Agriculture is probably one reason," Lowry writes of the fruit bowl of festivals southern women vie to be queen of — "the ancient tradition of celebrating the harvest through ritual ceremony."
A beauty contestant's adviser named Mary Francis Flood had this answer:
"Our girls have a beautiful gait." (Desirable walking, incidentally, varies with the pageant. "USA," Flood says, using the insider shorthand, "likes a looser walk than America.")
Another pageant exec said it all boiled down to Southern pride:
"The South honors womanhood. The South is proud of its girls. And it is proud of their culture."
Are lasses from the South better-looking, more charming, better walkers? We've all heard loads of anecdotal lore about the appeal of Southern women, from Georgia "peaches" to the lookers of Texas, found, for instance, in Hank Williams Jr.'s assertion that "the best lookin' women that I've ever seen/ Have all been in Texas and all wearin' jeans."
But that was the '80s. (And what about wishing they could all be California girls?) And furthermore, what about now, when surely, if nothing else, we've all learned from massive Internet/endless-news-cycle exposure to international cultures that generalizations are hardly worth their weight in teeth-coating Vaseline.
I also Googled "Are Southern women better-looking?" and found a forum that attempted to parse this very question. The answers:
"I dunno, they just have better skin and seem more feminine. They walk nice. The non-southern miss USA contestants walked like men."
"you mean their mannerisms?
could be, they are raised more proper."
And this one really went for the title:
I have no doubt that it's because of the high humidity in the south. The moisture keeps our faces hydrated and the potential wrinkles plumped out. A New Jersey native once commented that all southern women have beautiful complexions. It is hot year round, so most of us keep a slight tan on our faces. We don't really need make up. Our hair is plumped with moisture from humidity. We don't have problems with dry, brittle hair because we rarely are exposed to artificial heat. We have very soft skin.
Another thing is that we were raised in a genteel, polite atmosphere. Our mannerisms and speech are slow and gentle. We have a slow, easy way of walking (and making love!). We don't like drama. We rarely raise our voices. We were taught that it is wrong to express a negative thought. We remain polite even when we disagree with someone. I have always been the epitomy of a genteel southern woman. I do, however, have an occasional slip and will flip off a church bus driver with a bus filled with kids if they cut me off in traffic!
Lolz-a-pop. Mane-sweeping generalizations above aside, if there is any truth to the something-in-the-water thinking behind the reason for Southern success in the looks and charm department onstage, it is probably a result of a conservative, traditional culture invested in conservative, traditional notions of femininity.
The South, progressive cities planted in and around it notwithstanding, has pretty much always operated at a slower pace. That was as much a result of its geographical isolation as it was and is a state of mind. But its typically more conservative culture and insistence on maintaining appearances — especially after losing the Civil War — are surely all part and parcel of a culture that still wants its women to be traditional, genteel and polite.
That's all well and good now, when the South has made significant political and socioeconomic progress (as always, it has more work to do). But you can't turn over a Southern rock without finding proof of a complicated past still squirming right under the surface (sometimes it is flapping around right on the back window of a pickup truck). According to the Times op-ed, those years in the late '50s and early '60s when Southern beauty queens were racking up the genteel wins, they may have been more political pawn than goodwill ambassador:
These were, of course, the years when black Southerners opened a full-scale campaign against Jim Crow, prompting a bitter backlash by white Southerners. White resistance began in earnest in 1954, when the Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, its decision to desegregate public schools.
This wasn't a coincidence. Images of white Southerners spitting on black students, and news of white lynch mobs killing children like Emmett Till, shocked the world. Other whites, many of them pro-segregation themselves but fearful of the national reaction brought on by anti-civil rights violence, understood that Southern beauty queens could serve as persuasive public relations agents, a genteel veneer to cover up the region's unsavory behavior.
It is impossible to overstate the effect of the positive press both Miss Americas from Mississippi, Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Mead, garnered for their state. An editor of a small-town Mississippi newspaper came to this conclusion during a 1959 trip to New York City, where an acquaintance told him that the state's first Miss America was "worth millions in good value to Mississippi."
At times, this good-will campaign sounded more like outright defiance. On a homecoming tour to Jackson, Miss., Ms. Mead announced that she had never apologized for her state. "And I won't," she insisted. "We have nothing to apologize for."
The piece goes on to connect the swimsuit competition, with the contestants in bikinis splashed over papers nationwide, to the fight over the access of African Americans to public pools, and the way the Southern Miss Americas of the period represented the "ideals of her city," ideals which these contestants were happy to defend, unapologetically. The pageant's success continued alongside television's debut too, where the pageant was rated the first or second most successful program each year.
Southern women lost their foothold on the pageant as the civil rights movement found greater support and success, and the op-ed author thinks this is no coincidence. "Still," the piece concludes, "we would do well to remember the troubling historical links between Southern beauty queens and racial politics, even when the winner lives in Brooklyn."
Is it possible that when the South most resisted the call to desegregate that it promoted the hell out of what it considered to be its best representation of itself — the idealized white, young female — a walking symbol of charm, purity and grace? If that's so, it's no wonder that it took until 1993 for the first African American woman to be crowned from a Southern state — Kimberly Aiken, from South Carolina. (The piece notes Vanessa Williams took the title a decade earlier, in New York, but lost it.)
The pageant, like the South, is much more diverse today. Both still have a lot of work to do on the catching-up front. So maybe it's also no coincidence that today's winner Mallory Hagan, raised in a place still working out the legacy of its complicated past, took the best of what she got from the South and moved to Brooklyn — to the snickers of her new neighbors, no less.