John Oliver, a British Comedian, recently started his own show on HBO called Last Week Tonight, a satirical news program. A couple of weeks ago, following the Miss America Beauty pageant, he did a special on beauty pageants, wherein he discussed the issue of pageants (in America, not globally, unfortunately) and exposed Miss America for the false claim that they give out forty five million dollars in scholarships, when the reality is a lot less. As Cohen and Wilk point out in their introduction, “Beauty Queens on the Global Stage,” one of the many roles of the beauty contest is that of ” articulating different political positions in rapidly changing social and political climates,” and John Oliver addresses the politics of beauty pageants in two ways. First of all, he talks about the incredibly difficult and very political questions that the contestants are asked, as well as the issue of the scholarship money that Miss America gives out. I want to focus on why the contestants are asked such difficult questions, ones that many, if not most, adults their age could not answer, and how it is necessary for Miss America in order to tout themselves as a respectable organization, not one to just be made a mockery of.
I think that it ties into what Cohen and Wilk present as found in many studies—that beauty contests are connected to social progress. Of course, the introduction focuses on the role of beauty pageants globally, but I think that the focus on politics in beauty contests that take place in developed countries also serves as a sign of social progress. In order to make Miss America seem superior to other pageants in the United States, there is a level of intellectualism that must be integrated into the pageant to give it legitimacy in the eyes of a developed nation, one that, I imagine, would separate itself from other beauty pageants in America, as well as the rest of the world. As John Oliver points out, Miss America focuses hugely on the scholarships that it gives out, and irregardless of that fact is generally seen as a more respected organization than Miss USA, run by Donald Trump. It all ties into pageants wanting to be taken seriously, as they are so often the target of mockery, and more often than not, pageants are written off as frivolous. So why do the pageant leaders feel the need to focus on the scholarships they award, select career-driven and highly educated contestants, and ask difficult, hard-hitting questions? When, at the same time, if a woman had all these qualities but did not fit into their standards of beauty, would not come close to qualifying for the competition? In order to compete, women must have brains and beauty—in other words, they must have it all, fulfilling the modern ideal of the working woman who is expected to raise a family, have a job, and fit into conventional beauty standards. This epitomizes the extreme standards of beauty, both in America and globally. If a beauty pageant is a sign of progress and civilization, then one can only assume that civilization is also correlated to beauty.
Perhaps the most depressing part of the entire segment is when, at the end, John Oliver reveals that despite the fact that the actual amount given is minuscule compared to what they claim, Miss America still gives out more scholarship money for women than any other organization that only does that, such as The Rankin Foundation. Earlier in the video Oliver says “The only time beauty pageants are relevant nowadays, is when someone forwards you a link to something like this:” followed by a clip of a contestant barely speaking English as she attempts to answer her question on education. Of course, John Oliver mentions this for comedic affect, but Cohen and Wilk would certainly disagree that pageants are irrelevant. The fact that John Oliver spends fifteen minutes discussing the pageant, and that Miss America is indeed the largest provider of scholarships for women, shows that beauty pageants may be much more important in our culture than many people would care to admit.