Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Affirmative Action In Miss America Contest

I have mixed reactions to Nina Davuluri becoming Miss America on Sep. 15.  While someone of Indian origin has won, my first thought on seeing the news footage was "Really? Is this the best that USA (or the Indian community for that matter) can offer?"  I wonder what proportion of Americans and Indians feel this way.  A poll on this would be interesting. In each of the Indian marriages I've recently attended in India and the US there were some female guests I'd regard as having a better presence than Nina.

It looks like the contest has evolved away from what I expect.  Given that it's highly visual, I thought having stunning looks that would turn heads should be table stakes for all contestants.  That means scoring close to a 10 when men rate them in appearance on a 1 to 10 scale for, say, whom they'd like stranded with them on an island.  Sure, the winner should have a lot more - charm, poise, intelligence, talent, etc. But these attributes should complement, not substitute for physical oomph.   I'd score Nina as a 7, may be even an 8, but that still falls short.  We're talking of Miss Totally Outstanding here, not Miss Quite Above Average. 

Beauty of course lies in the eye of the beholder.  You'd then want judges whose choices reflect mass appeal but that isn't happening here.  It may be overly politically correct judges who want to signal some social message with their decision.  That's unfortunate and the reason I have long stopped watching these pageants, national or international.  Fair judging should pick winners regardless of their ethnicity, color or creed, not because of it in a misplaced push to deliberately inject diversity.  By all means choose a Chinese American as Miss America in the next year or two, but only if judges truly assess her to be the best, and not driven by any inclination to represent this group.  And do give those poor statuesque, blond and blue eyed girls a chance even if they don't have any serious disability.

This system can be corrected to reflect mainstream sentiment by replacing the celebrity judges with a large representative group of men who vote by secret ballot. And for the Q&A please, no questions on charged political and socially divisive issues like an attack on Syria or gay marriage where the listeners' prejudices can color how they evaluate answers.  Well, they regrettably did have these types of questions in Miss America for the top five finalists and four of them got through with (about equally) good answers.

What about other parts of the contest?  Nina's Bollywood fusion dance item in the talent show was impressive but I didn't find it exceptional.  I've seen similar standards of performance by non-professionals and semi-professionals at larger Indian festivals.  The ballet number by Miss California and River Dance by "our" Miss Connecticut look at least as good to me.  And Miss Kansas who got the most online votes and wasn't allowed under the rules to display her marksmanship and archery prowess did a good job in her second choice of singing.

Other than reactions in the media, Twitter or blogosphere are there ways to assess if pageant winners are well chosen?  I can think of a hypothetical measure as well as a one based on subsequent history as under:

  • The contest winner should pass a "stand out" test.  That is, if you placed her among a fairly large group of randomly chosen American girls of similar age, onlookers who are told Miss America is among them should be easily able to pick her out.  Most shouldn't be going "Where? Where?" or guess it's someone else as I think would happen with Nina.  Though to be fair to her many of her fellow contestants could also have been lost in a crowd.  This can be due to the criteria of evaluation being skewed so much away from looks at all levels of competition - local, state, national and even international.  That's why there can be similar surprises and unexpected outcomes even in the Miss Universe and Miss World contests.

  • The test of history - what these winners achieve down the line.  By this measure the likes of Vanessa Williams (first African American crowned Miss America 1984), Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989), Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994), Sushmita Sen (Miss Universe 1994), Priyanka Chopra (Miss World 2000), Lara Dutta (Miss Universe 2002) were great choices. So were also-rans Diane Sawyer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone, Halle Berry and yes, Oprah Winfrey. 
So on the positive side if Nina has notable achievements hereafter, even if it takes decades, I'll eat my words and apologize for any mean things I've said.  And regardless of anything else I'm happy for her and congratulate her - she parlayed all she had to win beyond most Americans' (and my) expectations. 

And while I carp about this de facto affirmative action permeating various aspects of our life it at least speaks to the amazing open mindedness of Americans.  I've been struck by the wide acceptance and appreciation of other cultures by most of them, and the Miss America 2014 results reflect this.