The best books for understanding how the Miss America pageant was born, what it means, and why it matters

Margot Mifflin Author Of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood
By Margot Mifflin

Who am I?

I write about pop culture and women’s history, often as it relates to the body and beauty. I’m intrigued by the ways women claim unconventional means of expression for their own beautification (such as tattooing) and how they harness beauty in the service of social and economic mobility (as in pageant culture). These books offer insight into the varied ways pageantry, from campus pageants to the Miss America stage, inform American identity and ratify the historian Rosalyn Baxandall’s belief that “every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss America contest.”


I wrote...

Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

By Margot Mifflin,

Book cover of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

What is my book about?

Looking for Miss America is the first cultural history of the Miss America pageant. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a “scholarship competition,” the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change–the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This narrative history tells the stories of the beauty queens who loved it, hated it, rebelled against it, and exploited it to seize opportunities men got without dressing up (or stripping down) on national television. Written in deeply researched, fast-paced chapters that unpack each decade of the competition, Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.

The books I picked & why

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The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity

By Sarah Banet-Weiser,

Book cover of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity

Why this book?

Starting from the premise that beauty pageants are often dismissed as “frivolous, meaningless, or carnivalesque and therefore unworthy of serious sustained intellectual scrutiny,” (4) Banet-Weiser shows how class and race, patriotism, and community values are embodied on the pageant stage. Crucially, she proves that the Miss America pageant doesn’t mean “one thing to one audience” and explains how what may seem like an expression of individual ambition is more frequently a reflection of national ideals—and biases.  

The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity

By Sarah Banet-Weiser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Most Beautiful Girl in the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah Banet-Weiser complicates the standard feminist take on beauty pageants in this intriguing look at a hotly contested but enduringly popular American ritual. She focuses on the Miss America pageant in particular, considering its claim to be an accurate representation of the diversity of contemporary American women. Exploring the cultural constructions and legitimations that go on during the long process of the pageant, Banet-Weiser depicts the beauty pageant stage as a place where concerns about national identity, cultural hopes and desires, and anxieties about race and gender are crystallized and condensed. The beauty pageant, she convincingly demonstrates, is a profoundly…


Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain

By Kate Shindle,

Book cover of Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain

Why this book?

Miss America memoirs tend to be a frothy, humble-braggy business, but Kate Shindle’s well-researched, searingly honest exposé Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain is complex and entertaining. It includes a lively narrative history of the pageant, a warts-and-all account of her own (successful) bid for the 1998 title, a damning analysis of its hypocrisies and shady business practices, and the revelation that competing gave her eating and exercise disorders. She courageously calls herself a hypocrite for publicly pretending Miss America “was all about the big picture while privately striving for an impossible aesthetic.” Still, because of the power it gave her to change the world through her AIDS awareness platform, Shindle, now an actress and president of the Actors Equity Association, says “I wouldn’t trade that year for anything.” 

Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain

By Kate Shindle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Being Miss America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For nearly a hundred years, young women have competed for the title of Miss America-although what it means to wear the crown and be our "ideal" has changed dramatically over time. The Miss America Pageant began as a bathing beauty contest in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, sponsored by businessmen trying to extend the tourist season beyond Labor Day. In the post-World War II years, the pageant evolved into a national coronation of an idealized "girl next door," as pretty and decorous as she was rarely likely to speak her mind on issues of substance. Since the cultural upheavals of…


"There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant

By Elwood Watson (editor), Darcy Martin (editor),

Book cover of "There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant

Why this book?

This anthology spans a remarkable and surprising range of topics including first-hand accounts by pageant winnersand losers—along with rich historical context. Historian Kimberly Hamlin documents the first Miss America Pageant (launched a year after women won the vote), showing how it both appropriated the format of suffrage pageants and defined itself in opposition to them. Feminist scholar Donelle Ruwe explains why becoming Miss Meridian [Miss.] in 1985 had an unexpectedly positive impact on her life, even though she considers beauty pageants to be “oppressive” and “degrading.” And the African-American scholar Gerald Early’s riveting “Waiting for Miss America” weighs the racial implications of Vanessa Williams’ 1983 crowning as the first Black Miss America. “[S]he was the most loved and most suspect woman in America,” he writes. Suspect, because “some blacks don’t trust her motives and some whites don’t trust her abilities.”  

"There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant

By Elwood Watson (editor), Darcy Martin (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked "There She Is, Miss America" as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

While some see the Miss American Pageant as hokey vestige of another era, many remain enthralled by the annual Atlantic City event. And whether you love it or hate it, no one can deny the impact the contest has had on American popular culture-indeed, many reality television shows seem to have taken cues from the pageant. Founded in 1921, the Miss America Pageant has provided a fascinating glimpse into how American standards of femininity have been defined, projected, maintained, and challenged. At various times, it has been praised as a positive role model for young American women, protested as degrading…


Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

By Karen W. Tice,

Book cover of Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

Why this book?

A history of campus pageants going back to the 1920s, Queens of Academe considers not only their “calibrations of class and femininity,” but also their racial and (overwhelmingly Christian) religious underpinnings. Tice chronicles how campus competitions (many of which are feeder pageants for Miss America) allayed fears that educated women would renounce home and hearth, and traces the ways they’ve evolved to reflect social progress. Two chapters—“We are Here: Pageants as Racial ‘Homeplaces’ and Ethnic Combat Zones” and “Flesh and Spirit: Bibles, Beauty and Bikinis”—examine neglected aspects of pageant scholarship, showing how Black swimsuit contestants faced a unique challenge in deflecting the pernicious Jezebel trope by proving their worth through demonstrations of etiquette, grooming, and racial progress. Even male contestants swagger through these pages—including a Mr. Harvard hopeful who competed in see-through tape and rose-petal pasties. 

Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

By Karen W. Tice,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Queens of Academe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Universities are unlikely venues for grading, branding, and marketing beauty, bodies, poise, and style. Nonetheless, thousands of college women have sought not only college diplomas but campus beauty titles and tiaras throughout the twentieth century. The cultural power of beauty pageants continues today as campus beauty pageants, especially racial and ethnic pageants and pageants for men, have soared in popularity.

In Queens of Academe, Karen W. Tice asks how, and why, does higher education remain in the beauty and body business and with what effects on student bodies and identities. She explores why students compete in and attend pageants such…


Drag Queens and Beauty Queens: Contesting Femininity in the World's Playground

By Laurie Greene,

Book cover of Drag Queens and Beauty Queens: Contesting Femininity in the World's Playground

Why this book?

Drag pageantry owes a lot to Miss America, especially an Atlantic City pageant called Miss’d America. Greene documents the symbiotic relationship between the Atlantic City gayborhood that spawned this contest and the Miss America Pageant, where many gay locals worked as stylists, dancers, and on production crews behind the scenes. Launched in 1993, Miss’d America unified this community in response to the AIDS crisis and offered an alternative pageant for people who’d missed the real deal. Greene couches Miss’d America in the context of Atlantic City’s fascinating drag history going back to the turn of the century (because what better runway than the Atlantic City Boardwalk?), describing, for example, men who swanned along wearing “trick pants, pale purple hose, tan shoes with two-inch soles and lavender neckties” in 1925. 

Drag Queens and Beauty Queens: Contesting Femininity in the World's Playground

By Laurie Greene,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Drag Queens and Beauty Queens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Miss America pageant has been held in Atlantic City for the past hundred years, helping to promote the city as a tourist destination. But just a few streets away, the city hosts a smaller event that, in its own way, is equally vital to the local community: the Miss’d America drag pageant.

 

Drag Queens and Beauty Queens presents a vivid ethnography of the Miss’d America pageant and the gay neighborhood from which it emerged in the early 1990s as a moment of campy celebration in the midst of the AIDS crisis. It examines how the pageant strengthened community bonds…


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