Why #MeToo at the Miss USA pageant worked so well

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Sarah Rose Summers, Miss Nebraska USA 2018 (Brittany Elizabeth Strickland/The Miss Universe Organization via AP)

I wasn’t a pageant girl. I never competed in a pageant, and I didn’t grow up with anyone who did.

But I imagine then, as is the case now, it was a way for young girls to socialize, perform, compete and have fun dressing up, and for young women to vie for valuable scholarships to which they might not otherwise have had access. It may not be for me, but who am I to judge how other women pursue their goals?

For some, this is all very problematic in 2018. The reason why? #MeToo.

OPINION

Hours afterMondaynight’s Miss USA pageant crowned Miss NebraskaSarah Rose Summersthe winner,USA Todayposted scathing commentary fromCarly Mallenbaum, who called the event “a cringeworthy contest that went, no joke, straight from a heels-and-bikini competition into a montage of contestants talking about when they’ve experienced assault.”

She continues, aghast: “Later, there was a video of contestants recitingMaya Angelou’sinspirational ‘Phenomenal Woman’ poem, all while appearing to pose for a glossy photo shoot, barefoot in a pond.”

And her final death blow: “It’s as if producers thought that the inclusion of questions about marches and sexual violence would translate into an empowering affair.”

Actually, they thought correctly.

Reciting the inspirational words of poets like Angelou, including questions about sexual violence — as well as a very powerful and moving video montage of contestants sharing their sexual harassment and assault stories — all did, in fact, translate into an empowering affair.

It was the first time in the history of the pageant — which, let’s remember, was owned by none other thanDonald Trumpfrom 1996 to 2015 — in which a question on sexual assault had its own segment.

The responses on Twitter were largely effusive:

Former Miss USA 2002,Shauntay Hinton, tweeted, “Very progressive of the #MissUSA pageant to have an open forum about how the #MeToo movement affected the contestants. Glad they are having the conversation.”

PBS NewsHourproducerCourtney Norriswrote, “Wow. In what will be seen as a moment for beauty pageants, @MissUSA contestants are asked: Have you ever had a #MeToo moment? Their responses are devastating and brutal. But a chorus of women speaking their truth is empowering and clearly contagious.”

And Cosmopolitan writerAmanda Coyne: “This #MeToo segment is perfectly on pitch. Letting women tell their stories about what they experienced and how they survived and persisted. #MissUSA.”

But for Mallenbaum, the event wasn’t pitch-perfect, but “tone-deaf.” Is she suggesting that excluding a #MeToo reference would have been better? That seems illogical.

The problem appears to be that these women were addressing sexual harassment while in the midst of a “heels-and-bikini competition.” For Mallenbaum, that is somehow incongruous.

To me, that’s a very dangerous assertion. The presumption that women in heels and a bikini can’t also share their experiences with sexual harassment is based on one of two things: they aren’t qualified to; or, they are ascribed some kind of complicity in their harassment for competing in beauty pageants, or dressing a certain way, or acting a certain way.

Suggesting their message shouldn’t be taken seriously in the context of a beauty contest is not only absurd, it’s offensive.

This is, in fact, a perfect place to have this conversation. These are women who voluntarily participate in these competitions that they, by most accounts, find rewarding, and are then subjected to dismissive criticisms by both men and women for cheaply objectifying themselves. Tell that to last year’s Miss America,Cara Mund, a graduate ofBrown University. OrDiane Sawyer, a former “America’s Junior Miss.” OrOprah Winfrey, 1971’sMiss Black Tennessee.

But more importantly, many of these women have themselves been victimized at this very pageant. A number of previous contestants have accused Trump and others of inappropriate behavior and harassment in prior years. Ignoring #MeToo would have meant ignoring a big part of the pageant’s own troubled past.

Instead it had the contestants tackle it head on, sharing their intimate stories in powerful ways.

The simple truth is, Mallenbaum might just not like beauty pageants. She sniffs at contestants’ answers to interview questions and then shares a list of Twitter memes mocking the women’s responses.

That would all seem far more tone-deaf, and far less empowering, than what happened at the pageanton Mondaynight.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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