In late January, when the radiant smiles of Miss America's fifty-one contestants beam across a packed theater in the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Mandy McMichael M.Div. '05, Th.M. '06 will be watching from home, notepad and pen out. McMichael, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in American religious history at Duke, will be conducting research for her dissertation, an investigation into the pageant organization and its widespread acceptance and influence in Southern evangelical Christian communities.
Enthusiasm for pageants like Miss America is still high in the South, despite having waned nationally, McMichael says. The reasons are not entirely clear, but may include the culture of small towns and reactions against perceived feminist attacks on traditional institutions. In 1968, for instance, a number of radical groups picketed the pageant, tossing items that they saw as symbolic of women's oppression (high-heeled shoes and brassieres among them) into what was called the Freedom Trash Can.
Although she appears to find this history fascinating, she has chosen to focus her research in two areas: how evangelical Christian women rationalize a belief in modesty while baring their bodies, and how they use the competitions to become more socially mobile despite gender barriers.
Women who win pageants are often invited to the pulpit to preach or witness to their congregations, functions traditionally reserved for men. The women, McMichael says, see it as a way to still work within the church while going outside of its male-dominated hierarchy. "It does give them experience that they aren't getting other places."
McMichael has found that many women use the biblical reference to the body as a "temple of the Holy Spirit" to justify their participation in the swimsuit contest. But while she has learned that many do feel some internal conflict, they also understand that it is a means to an end. "These are intelligent young women," she says.
Still, pageants can border on the absurd. At one she attended, contestants were judged while the hit song "I Can Only Imagine" played. "It's a Christian song about heaven!" she says.
McMichael is living in Alabama, her home state, this year while conducting interviews and surveys with the participants in the Miss Alabama pageant, which is sponsored by the Miss America Organization. The Miss America Organization touts its pageants as scholarship contests, in contrast with the Miss Universe Organization, which sponsors the Miss USA pageants and considers them beauty pageants. (Miss USA was founded after the 1951 Miss America, Yolande Betbeze, from Mobile, Alabama, refused to pose for pictures in her bathing suit after capturing her crown. "I'm an opera singer," she said, referring to her talent-competition performance, "not a pinup.")
But McMichael looks past the seemingly obvious contradictions to the place behind the smile and the evening wear, where a desire to bring others into the flock lives, and to the platform that makes it possible.