Miss America's God

Faith and Identity in America's Oldest Pageant

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Mandy McMichael
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , November
     2019.
     264 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481311977.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While the Miss America pageant has often been a lightening rod for controversies and criticisms throughout it’s near century-long history, in her new book Miss America’s God: Faith and Identity in America’s Oldest Pageant System Mandy McMichael offers readers a glimpse into understanding why participating in pageants has been so alluring to young women throughout the decades and what the pageant’s prolific history has to say about the tastes and proclivities of the American public for the past century. McMichael utilizes tools culled from historical-critical analysis, feminist theory, and ethnography to craft her study. Ultimately the book levies a series of strong feminist rooted critiques at both the construct of “Miss America” and American culture.

The book is very much a study in sex-obsessed American culture, of which McMichael writes, “Miss America is sex, yes. Plain and simple. But so is everything else. Sports is sex. Beer is sex. Music and movies and television and politics is sex. Sex pervades schools, churches and little girls’ dance classes. America, if it is obsessed with anything, is obsessed with sex” (145). Afterall, she writes, even “health in America is not about health; it is about looking good so that sex abounds” (145). McMichael points out that while this may seem to fly in the face of the Puritanical impulses that have pervaded American culture, Miss America has been a reflection of American society and values since its inception. Just as American values have changed and shifted over time, so too has the pageant evolved into today’s “Miss America 2.0,” spearheaded by Gretchen Carlson, a catalyst of the #MeToo movement, who ushered in changes (some controversial), such as dumping the swimsuit category and officially utilizing the moniker “Miss America Competition” as opposed to “Miss America Pageant.”

Just as it has been a key component of American culture, religion—namely Christian religion—has been an important aspect of Miss America, which could be considered a civic ritual. From ministers serving as pageant judges to scripture being read at competitions or pageant hopefuls viewing their participation in the event as a way to deepen or share their faith, McMichael contends, “Religion capitalizes on all that is American in Miss America. It sanctifies the sex, ritualizes the entertainment, and justifies the competition. Religion makes Miss America” (148).

Religion is at the core of the pageant according to the author. The pageant has been a spectacle that feeds into America’s lust for competition with elements of live theatre, drama, game shows, reality TV and comedy, something that has defied categorization and become a genre of its own—which, McMichael concludes, is not unlike American Christianity, denominations of which have been in competition for members.

Miss America also showcases the making of identity. “Nothing is more American than becoming a self,”(149) McMichael declares, and religion functions as a proxy in the pageant and enables a woman to be smart and beautiful, and any other characteristics which are ascribed to her, as well as to be a self. “Religion is the proxy, the conceptual space, that enables a woman to stand for America, in a skimpy swimsuit, and to do so without being just an object” (148). However, as a competition which awards one winner for being the ideal, McMichael says the danger such a competition poses to young women is to “forego self-discovery and become the expected self” (149). Miss America is compelled to hold in tension the expectation to appear “chaste and virginal,” a painstaking construction of beauty, virtue, respectability—a “Sunday school, not a Saturday night” (145). As McMichael contends in the book’s conclusion, “Miss America pointed beyond herself to a nation ever conflicted about who it was and how to hold the things it valued in tension” (145).

McMichael’s extensive ethnographic study demonstrates the depth and sincerity of her scholarship and gives weight to her critique. No one could accuse the author of an armchair understanding of the Miss America Pageant and its contestants, as she spent many years surveying and speaking with hopefuls. She also immersed herself in North Carolina pageant culture for a semester and conducted research at the Miss Alabama Pageant, in addition to observing state pageants in eight different states as well as four national pageants. All of her painstaking ethnographic work was undertaken in an effort to “decipher pageant narratives and situate them within American religious history” (9). In this effort, McMichael deserves a crown, sash, and bouquet of roses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carissa S. Wyant is an Adjunct Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
November 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mandy McMichael is David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance at Baylor University.

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