This year we had a few contestants with disabilities including Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, who was born without a left forearm and Miss Arizona, Jennifer Smestad, who was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at the age of ten. These contestants follow the likes of Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, the first contestant diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who appeared in last year’s competition. And, of course, the infamous Heather Whitestone, Miss Alabama (1994) and Miss America (1995), who was our first “Miss Deaf America.”
The rhetoric surrounding disability in beauty competitions has largely focused on the tragedy of the occurrence, the necessity of “overcoming” the disability, and the “inspiration” one can be for others (both people with disabilities and young girls). These constructions shouldn’t surprise us because these narratives are pervasive tropes in pop culture.
Even though our hopefuls didn’t articulate their experience with disability in a particularly “social model”/progressive manner, I was still pulling for them to place in the top 15 so their presence would be felt my mainstream American society. The closest we got was Miss Florida, Myrrhanda Jones, who was competing with a knee brace after tearing ligaments in her right knee during the preliminary talent competition. In an interview during the competition, Lance Bass assure the viewing audience that it “doesn’t effect the judging at all.” Thanks for that, Lance.
Miss Iowa and Miss Arizona both planned to speak about their experiences with their disability, but, alas, we did not have the opportunity to find out what that would entail. We did, however, get a consistent message from sponsors about “overcoming,” “inspiring,” and “being all that you can be.” Once contestant’s pre-taped interview mentioned how her brother was an inspiration to her (if anyone in cyberspace remembers who this contestant was, please let me know—I’ve been scouring the internet for the video clip/contestant’s name and can’t find it anywhere!).
Finally, Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, our newly crowned Miss America’s platform is “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.” She stated in a recent interview, “Miss America is evolving as the diversity in America evolves.”
This year’s trend of “overcoming,” “inspiring,” and “being all you can be” was supported by contestants, sponsors (ranging from cosmetics you buy over the internet, to hotels) and, in a slightly different way, by our new Miss America 2014. It’ll be interesting to see what next year’s theme is and if our theme of inclusion and diversity is supported by the presence of even more diverse bodies in Miss America 2015.
Hey, a girl can hope, right?