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There She Goes, Miss America....

So, an organization and social presentation that operates by reducing and objectifying women has members that don't see women in a positive light.

Twilight You Don't Say

The Miss America Pageant has always seemed a bit...odd to me. Even when I was growing up, I didn't quite understand the hubbub. If I wanted to look at pretty women, there were plenty of other things on TV I could watch, and they weren't shown only once a year (sorry, folks, but Jaclyn Smith is dreamy and leaves any Miss America contestant in the dust). The show was mostly interested in parading the women around as a sort of neutral fantasy object -- you wanted to see glamour? You saw that. You wanted to see sexy? You saw that. Indeed, the segments usually reserved for showing some individuality and that there was more to these women than their appearances were often the most derided.

For example, the essay portion. The host would ask the contestant some off the cuff question and the contestant would try to answer it. It didn't take long for the introverted me to recognize what was happening -- the contestants realized what kind of answer they had to give, and were trying to come up with something on the spot that 1) fit the allotted time and 2) met the criteria the judges wanted to hear. In other words, this wasn't the contestants revealing their personalities, it was just another sell job for the judges and the audience.

(Side bar: there is a reason I will NEVER make fun of Lauren Katlin. Katlin catapulted to infamy as Miss South Carolina in 2007's Miss Teen USA pageant. She was asked a question about education, and her brain locked up. I've done improv. I've had those moments where you lose the line you're following and everything falls apart for you. In improv, you have others around you who can help cover for you, getting you back on track and distracting the audience until you are ready to go again. Not Katlin. She was out there alone with no cover as she rambled on about "the Iraqs" and such. People like to feature it in compilations about how dumb women can be and take cheap shots at her. But me? I saw the clip, and I cringed because I've been there. If I ever make fun of her for fumbling the question, slap me.)

The second is the talent portion. Believe it or not, there is only one person I think of when I hear the phrase "Miss America." And that is Kaye Lani Rafko, the 1988 winner from the state of Michigan. I know there are other Miss Americas who have gone on to bigger things, like Lee Meriwether, Phyllis George, and Vanessa Williams. I'm even aware of Katie Harman, because she appeared on an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? But Rafko is the first one I remember. Most contestants come out and perform classical music or standards or other such upper class and refined things. Then Rafko came on stage, and performed a hula dance. It was completely out of nowhere, completely non-conformist, and something no one else would have had the guts to do in that situation. And I stared at the screen going, "This is my kind of woman!" It was considered revolutionary that she won the title of Miss America, and the talent portion afterwards did seem to have more unique performances instead of the standard stuff. But tradition creeped back in, and now such things are a rarity. I only recently became aware of Laryssa Bonacquisti, this year's Miss Louisiana, who, for the talent portion, came out with a pair of puppets and did a ventriloquism bit with them yodeling. Folks, if there were more people doing stuff like that, I'd actually be more interested in watching.

Miss America has been having problems being seen as more than a cultural relic. Originally televised live on ABC, the network dropped the show after the 2004 pageant drew a "record low" of 9.8 mil, with it bouncing around cable channels until ABC picked it up again in 2011 and it has chugged along since. It has tried to maintain its image, even as people like John Oliver investigated the organization over things like that scholarship money.

But the thing about image is, it usually covers up things you don't want to see.

The bomb exploded on December 21, 2017. Two people who worked for the Miss America pageant (Brent Adams has been publicly identified, I am unaware of the identity of the second) had a little sit-down with Yashar Ali, a writer for HuffPost, for an article that appeared on the site that Thursday.  He was handed over internal emails from the organization from between 2014 and 2017. There were four key people in the emails -- Sam Haskell, the CEO of MAO, Lewis Friedman, the head writer, and Tammy Haddad and Lynn Weidner, board members.

So what was in those emails? For starters, there was a continuous barrage directed at Mallory Hagan. Hagan won the crown in 2013, and it appears was not the favorite of the people in the emails. (Hagan appears to be another nonconformist in the Rafko mold -- for the talent show, she wore a latex rodeo outfit and did a tapdance to James Brown's Get Up Offa That Thing. Ooookaaaay....) There were messages making fun of her for possibly gaining weight. Haskell wrote in one exchange, "OMG she is huge...and gross" and in another that she was "a piece of trash." One communique with Friedman found Haskell writing, "Not a single day passes that I am not told some horrible story about Mallory," "Mallory's preparing for her new career...as a blimp in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," and "she continues her descent to an unhappy pathetic footnote." There was also speculation about her sex life -- in one email, the writer asked Haskell if he was part of a tiny group of people who had not had sex with Hagan. Haskell's response? "It appears we are the only ones!"

Also getting a shotgun blast to the face was Kate Shindle. Shindle is the former Miss Illinois who won the Miss America crown in 1998 (she's now a prominent star on Broadway, and is also president of the Actors' Equity Association) and wrote a book critical of MAO. When former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley died, one emailer wrote, "It should have been Kate Shindle." Haskell apparently found this funny. He also apparently found it funny when one former contestant was referred to with a vulgar word for the female anatomy.

Another target was Gretchen Carlson, who was the 1989 Miss America. The HuffPo piece reported that she had been pushing Haskell and pageant officials to modernize the organization and that she refused to attack other former Miss Americas who were critical of Haskell. Haskell and Haddad exchanged emails that seemed to suggest they were plotting retribution against Carlson. Haskell wrote of ways to drive Carlson "insane", and Haddad called her a "snake." Haddad also said in other emails that some former Miss Americas were a "pile of malcontents and has beens who blame the program for not getting them where they think they can go” and that “80% of the winners do not have the class, smarts and model for success.”

The messages prompted 49 former Miss Americas, including Hagan and Shindle, to sign an open letter demanding the firing or resignation of everyone involved in this. The letter was also signed by over 1,600 people on the state and local levels, from contestants to volunteers. On December 21, it was reported that Dick Clark Productions, who handled the TV broadcast, broke ties with the organization over the emails (DCP was also on the board of directors, and they resigned from that). Chris Howard, the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said he found the emails "troubling" and announced the CRDA was reconsidering its contract with Miss America (Frank Gilliam, incoming mayor of Atlantic City, and State Senator Colin Bell, apparently decided to bandwagon and began calling for CRDA to cut ties with Miss America).

MAO had an, "Oh, shit!" moment and took evasive action. On December 22, they released statements to the USA Today saying that they had been made aware of concerns several months prior (which, of course, explains why they didn't take any action until the emails became public the previous day). They also suspended Haskell (it is unknown if he would still be paid his $500K salary while suspended, but that would eventually become a moot point). They also sacked Friedman that day.

In defense of Haskell's behavior, the USA Today release stated that it had investigated and found that Haskell was under "unreasonable distress resulting from intense attacks on his family from disgruntled stakeholders." Haskell himself added that he was attacked by two former Miss Americas (he did not identify which ones) for a year, "which impaired my judgment when responding to the inappropriate emails sent to me about them. For that, I deeply apologize." So, because he's having a bad day, he response is to make horrible personal comments in emails about women. Yeah, right. Hagan and Shindle also thought this was bullshit, and called out MAO for suspending instead of firing Haskell. Haskell is also insisting that Ali's article misrepresents him. Ali's response? He's saying he's got more emails and is going to make a piece chronicling them all. Uh, Mr. Haskell? When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.

Also chiming in at this point was Betty Cantrell, the 2016 Miss America and another signatory of the open letter. She told the Associated Press that she "lived under this misogynistic leadership for a year of my life, and I'm definitely glad to see all of this evidence come into the light." She claimed pageant officials "told me which former Miss Americas I wasn't allowed to associate with or pose for photos with."

On December 23, Josh Randle, the president of MAO, Weidner, and Haskell officially resigned. Haskell is gone now, Weidner and Randle are staying on for a short time to help transition. Dan Meyers, the vice chair of the board, is presently the interim chair. The Children's Miracle Network also announced it was re-evaluating its ties to the organization. Haddad resigned on December 24. At present, Randle is the only one who has actually apologized directly to Hagan. MAO is also considering revisions to its email policy.

All this has left the future of Miss America, created as a publicity stunt to bring tourists to Atlantic City, in serious doubt. There's a lot of people who took a lot of pride in being associated with Miss America. Now? No one knows what happens next.

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