Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

Counterpoint. Aug. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9781640092235. $28. SOC SCI
Beauty pageants have long been a topic of research and wide interest, and Mifflin’s (Bodies of Subversion) work offers excellent content and historical analysis to this ongoing discussion. The book focuses not on pageantry in general, but instead specifically analyzes the 100-year-history of the Miss America pageant, since its founding in Atlantic City in 1921. This narrower focus allows the author to share personal stories of winners and contestants, and helps readers to better understand how the institution evolved under various leaders and reacted to societal shifts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Many events will be familiar to even casual observers of American culture—such as the notorious “bra burning” protests and the moment that winner Vanessa Williams was forced to resign—but Mifflin situates these events in the pageant’s historical context, allowing for a better understanding of their cultural impact. While deftly commenting on the racism and sexism that have characterized the pageant’s history, she also makes space for the contestants to speak openly for themselves about their own experiences, something pageants themselves are not known for.
VERDICT This work offers a thought-provoking, balanced, and highly informative look at an institution that has perplexed and enticed Americans since its founding.
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