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Smackdown: Miss America vs. Queen Esther

Last night I watched the Miss America pageant with a bunch of my friends. When Miss Oklahoma won over Miss Texas, I was totally bummed. In her interview with the judges, she said that if she could change one thing about herself, she’d be taller. Wow, that’s so deep, Miss Oklahoma. Meanwhile, in her interview Miss Texas started crying at the prospect of having enough money to go to college (in case you didn’t know, the Miss America Pageant is a scholarship competition. The winner gets fifty grand to further their education). So anyway, sitting around with my Jewish girlfriends making catty remarks about the dresses (the sequins were way out of control, and there was also a bathing suit with an attached belt, which I do not even remotely understand) I thought a little about Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945 who was Jewish and refused to change her name to something less Semitic sounding. Myerson went on to a career in television and politics, survived a messy legal controversy in the 80s, fought ovarian cancer and a stroke. These days, apparently, she focuses on philanthropy. For my Bat Mitzvah I got six or seven books about Great Jewish Women, and inevitably they mentioned Myerson. It always seemed kind of funny to me that Myerson was so glorified, because beauty pageants aren’t really what I consider to be a paragon of Jewish values. In fact, when I was a kid the only time pageants ever came up was in reference to Purim. In school they didn’t bother teaching us about the politics of a harem, or what Esther’s marriage probably entailed, they just said she was picked for being the most beautiful chick in Shushan. If you think about it, the Esther/Miss America analogy works pretty well. “Beauty queen” is an apt term. The position is somewhat powerful, and has plenty of perks, but it’s also kind of yucky, standing around in a bathing suit in front of Chris Matthews. Esther was chosen for being good in bed, which (hopefully) isn’t how Miss America is selected, but clearly sexuality is a big component of the competition. And there’s always the threat of having the crown taken away if you screw up. Either way I think it’s interesting the role that beauty plays in responsibility and privilege. Even in Jewish text we acknowledge how powerful being beautiful can be. I can’t decide of that’s sad, or just realistic.

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