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Jewish World Review Sept. 24 1999/ 14 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Miss America meets Miss'd America -- MISS AMERICA, like the first lady, reflects a popular image of contemporary womanhood shaped by her own personality. She can push the envelope but only so far.

Miss America gets there by her beauty, her talent and the fact that she is suggestively single. The first lady, like other public women of her generation, moves into the public spotlight through her marriage. Both are called on to represent more than themselves.

Last week, before the latest Miss America won her tiara, controversy exploded over Atlantic City when the lawyers and promoters running the pageant suggested changing the rules, to drop the ban against divorce and abortion. This was meant to be a sign of being hip and with it, but was quickly reconsidered when the lawyers and promoters realized it was not hip, but merely dumb.

Miss America has a way of crowding out affairs of state on the second weekend of September. On ABC's "This Week," George Will suggested the pageant should return to its origins as a bathing beauty contest. He's not ashamed of retrograde chauvinism, mocking one former Miss America for wanting to grow up and be "chief justice." No pretty woman could be that smart. Chief justices, like Washington wonks, must be plain, homely even.

George Stephanopoulos, perhaps more famous for being one of the most eligible bachelors for the next millennium than for his political commentary, wants to get rid of the contest altogether. (He's not running for anything himself.) "Good riddance," he says. The women he goes out with don't compete in bathing suits.

Bill Kristol makes an unfortunate pun (or was he being clever?) about how "revealing" the new rules are. Lots of indulgent chuckles from the old guys around the table. He, too, wants it to become extinct. Only the beauteous Cokie Roberts, who could be taken for a former Miss Louisiana, defended the pageant as harmless fun for everyone.

It used to be that women made fun of Miss America, usually from bathing-suit envy. Some of us know when we're playing out of our league. But we've got a new breed of men who don't want to admit they like looking at a beautiful woman. (The vital statistic 36-24-36 must be something from quantum physics.) Maybe they're afraid a woman might scold them if they do.

Actually, the roundtable discussion among the five Miss America finalists was more interesting than most of the Sunday talk shows. They didn't simply regurgitate what they'd read in the newspaper that morning. These were not bimbos.

Jade Small, Miss Illinois, a black woman who volunteers at a youth center for at-risk teen-agers, could (and did) catalogue the grim statistics for teen-agers considering suicides, getting pregnant and taking drugs. Susan Spafford, Miss Pennsylvania, a Korean who was adopted by American parents when she was 3-years-old, described meeting her biological parents this year. Heather French, Miss Kentucky, who would later be crowned Miss America, spoke poignantly of her father, a Vietnam veteran and winner of the Purple Heart, who returned to this country with disabilities that would make it hard for him to work. It was his war experience that got her interested in her specific project, which is advocacy for homeless veterans.

The men (and women) who knock Miss America are often expressing class snobbery, spitting out frat house stereotypes. They condescend with the sensitivity of Marie Antoinette: "Let 'em pay for their own college tuition."

The special project for the outgoing Miss America was "diabetes awareness," hardly a sexy issue. But when Nicole Johnson, Miss Virginia, visited diabetic children around the country, and occasionally placed her crown on the head of a thrilled little girl suffering from the disease, she was showing them that a diabetic can aim high. No small thing, because the disease is particularly debilitating for the young.

Nor do Miss Americas lack a sense of humor. Every year in Atlantic City, on the day after, men in drag lampoon their uptown sisters in the Miss'd America Pageant. If Miss America is as American as apple pie, Miss'd America is as American as apple-eyed. But this year Kate Shindle, Miss America of 1998, attended the satirical bash where more than 600 men and women contributed $15,000 for a South Jersey AIDS program. Miss Shindle, who promoted AIDS awareness in her reign, sang "My Man" to the drag queens. "What's any pageant without a former Miss Whatever singing Streisand?" she asked.

So lighten up, too, you guys.


09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate