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"Miss America: A Documentary"

Reviewed by Gerdeen Dyer

Is the Miss America Pageant really a "barometer of the nation's shifting ideas about womanhood?" No.

But that's all right. A serious documentary can be forgiven a certain amount of blather. Actually, "Miss America A Documentary," though less insightful than some reviewers have suggested, is great fun.

With 80 years of news footage (and almost 50 years of TV tape) there is plenty to enjoy here. There are numerous cheesecake lineups from the contest's first three decades, some of which look "sexier" than the modern swimsuit competition.

My favorite individual clip is from around 1960, when a contestant is asked about the possibility of a female president. Clearly surprised by the question, she makes a long, startlingly articulate argument . . . for the inferiority of women.

The non-pageant talking heads, some labeled "cultural critics," add the necessary gravitas to justify this film, but they are its most boring feature. Fortunately, the pageant veterans speak with less pomposity and more candor.

Former Miss America chief Leonard Horn admits that talent performances, which are supposed to give the pageant an air of class, usually are not very good. (Isn't that what PNB was saying years ago?) He even sees a bright side to this, arguing that mediocre performances make the contestants more representative of American womanhood.

Overall, this documentary increased my affection for the Miss America system, which I have not always admired. And it convinced me that participating is good for your health: Judging from their on-camera appearance, the beauty queens of the '30s and '40s are in better shape than the feminists of the 1960s.

There is one serious flaw. The film gives the impression that Miss America remains at the center of the pageant world, which is arguably no longer true. More former Miss USAs than former Miss Americas now go on to become real stars, and a woman can have an extraordinary competitive career without entering the Miss America system at all. The real pageant world is more diverse and interesting than indicated here.

But if America itself can build an identity on the myth of uniqueness, why not Miss America? After all, it's only a pageant.


Gerdeen Dyer is a journalist and co-founder of the Pageant News Bureau.


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