Miss America Nina Davuluri poses for photographers following her crowning in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
During my Tuesday morning subway commute, I encountered a man who felt the need to stare at me while I walked by. As I passed him, he whispered, “Miss America” at me. I kept walking, slightly confused at this unusual catcall. And then I remembered: as of Sunday night, Miss America was, like me, an American-born desi. Nina Davuluri, from Syracuse, New York—both conventionally gorgeous and medical school–bound—had won the title. Between this new form of catcalling and the inevitable comparisons to her by my nosy aunties, it was clear: she was put on this planet to make my life miserable.
Of course, this historic achievement wasn’t all roses for Davuluri either. Upon her crowning, Twitter overflowed with angry, post-9/11 racial hatred. “Miss New York is an Indian. With all due respect, this is America” chimed one tweeter. Another angrily writes, “How the fuck does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab! #idiots.” Actually, no she’s not an “Arab,” she’s an American-born Hindu of South Asian descent.
Here’s what I think those racist commenters are trying to say: We (brown people) did it again; we managed to take another seat that had, for the most part, been occupied for nearly a century by a white face. Miss America, like the president himself, is an important (if illusory) signifier of who’s in charge around here. All of a sudden “we” brown people were two for two in Obama’s America.
Understandably, most liberals’ reaction to the outpouring of racism inspired by Davuluri’s crowning glory has been to defend her. After all, she is actually an American. And there isn’t a South Asian–American that can’t relate to the frustration of being questioned about your nationality. Or the aggravation caused by flippant racists who can’t get even their racism right—calling a Hindu-identified South Asian–American woman a Muslim terrorist, for example, because obviously we all look the same. But for all intents and purposes, in this historical moment brown people are all the same, in that we’re all subject to the same ridicule and attacks thanks to state sanctioned surveillance and the cultural implications of the “war on terror.” It’s publicly acceptable to be racist against people who are assumed to be Muslim.
We can’t let this nasty display of racism back us into a corner. As tempting as it might be, to suggest that Davuluri’s win signifies progress for South Asians in America is to defend the Miss America pageant itself. And there isn’t really much about Miss America that could be considered progress for anyone (except maybe the steady decline in ratings over the last forty years, that might be a sign of progress). Miss America’s role in the public imagination has always been the product of objectification. It’s a beauty pageant after all, and the winner embodies the ideal American woman—prized as an object of beauty.
Miss America has always been a spectacle. The competition started in 1921 as a gimmick to get people to hang out in Atlantic City after Labor Day—at the time it was charmingly called “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.” By the 1950s it became conflated with everything that America stood for. Miss America is meant to represent the values Americans are supposed to hold dear—a female face and body to project onto the hopes and dreams of the nation. And throughout the pageant’s history, that female body has typically been thin, conventionally attractive—and almost always white.
Ideas about what kind of woman could adequately represent America have evolved over time. Originally, non-white women were not allowed to participate in the contest. It wasn’t until 1970 that a black woman competed. Since 1983, eight African-American women have worn the Miss America crown. And in 2001 the title went to Hawaii-born Filipino Angela Perez Baraquio.
It makes sense that some might consider the increasing racial diversity in the pageant to be a sign of progress. And for South Asians, being integrated into an existing cultural practice might seem like an important step toward cultural acceptance and assimilation. But I would argue it’s not really progress when the role of Miss America is so deeply limited in possibility and scope.
To be sure, optics matter. The minor net good is that little South Asian girls may feel better about themselves when they see a beauty queen that they can relate to. But Miss America still sends a message to girls and women that what you look like determines what you are worth. While it’s tempting to frame Nina Davuluri’s win as a victory for equality, let’s not get confused— the Miss America pageant is fundamentally about objectifying women and limiting their possibility to what they look like in a bikini.
I’m sure my catcaller thought he was being flattering by acknowledging that I wasn’t just any woman to be objectified, but a South Asian one—now open to my own brand of objectification too. But that’s not the kind of “progress” I’m going to rally behind.