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.



 

10 comments:

AmOK said...

It wasn't her first and only pageant win. She went through the paces. Second how many Telegu weddings did you attend in India where the women were so impressive?

Sandip Madan said...

Sure, but it doesn't prove anything if all pageants she's won are skewed by PC priorities. I haven't attended Telegu weddings but this also reinforces my point -they shouldn't pick the best Telegu or even the best Indian participant, but instead the best participant, period.

AmOK said...

Now if you were the local Maharaja I would take your word for it. As it happens just because you don't agree with their selection I cannot agree that all others besides you are driven by PC. Could it be that your tastes run more wheatish than Telegu-ish and that is all there is to it? If you fall back into a PC denial, check out those marriage ads in India - north India.

Sandip Madan said...

Good points, AmOk. Everyone's view is subjective and in pageants you should go by aggregate or average perceptions. That's why I suggested a poll among Americans as well as Indians. I don't expect Nina to do too well but I could be wrong.

And yes, people including many Indians have - sometimes strong - color and feature preferences. But I personally hugely like Vanessa Williams and Kerry Washington who are both African Americans.

AmOK said...

Yes. Point taken. My impish nature got the better of me about wheatish. The judges then are leading the polls and not following them. That is good marketing. The polls will follow with time if indeed they lag as you say. How do you think the opinions get formed in the first place? Primordial soup you say. Marketing says I.

Sandip Madan said...

The judges "diverge" from polls, not "lead" them as popular opinion may never go their way. It's not great marketing either. People regarding these pageants as a farce will stop watching them, as I have. One data point is nowhere conclusive but let's see this show's rating next year compared to this year.

AmOK said...

Analyze this. http://www.elle.com/_mobile/news/culture/french-response-to-miss-france-reveals-racism?src=soc_fcbks

Sandip Madan said...

Whether applicable to the US or France or any other country my position on good judging is the same: Does the choice reasonably reflect the majority view of all the people were they to be able to collectively judge? The judges are there to represent such a collective view - no "leading the public opinion" business. Your honest answer to the question should determine if the judges did their job well.

AmOK said...

So I guess direct voting is the only way. A few judges cannot reflect the average. Even if the resolving power of the vote is good enough to choose the winner this may itself be unstable. Truly undecidable.

Sandip Madan said...

All we need is good judges who accurately reflect the broad opinion. We apparently haven't been getting these.