Why the New Miss America Is Not a Symbol of Progress

Nina Davuluri (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Nina Davuluri (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes at the Nation that even though the racist reaction to the selection of Nina Davuluri, who is of South Asian descent, as Miss America has been shameful, the pageant itself is the real problem.

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 [f**k] 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 …

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 …

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.


Read Samhita Mukhopadhyay's entire piece at The Nation.

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