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Miss America is getting rid of the swimsuit competition. It’s a start.

There are definitely much better ways to give young women scholarship money, but fine.

Miss America finalists on stage in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September 2017.
Miss America finalists onstage in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September 2017.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Miss America is ditching the swimsuit competition and shifting away from judging contestants on their physical appearance, trying to revamp its image after vulgar emails surfaced of its leadership disparaging contestants and to step into the #MeToo era under Gretchen Carlson’s guide.

Carlson, the former Fox News host who is now chair of the board of directors at Miss America, said in an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday that the organization is no longer a “pageant” but instead a “competition” where candidates will be judged on more than just their looks.

Organizers will swap the swimsuit competition for what Miss America described as a “live interactive sessions with the judges,” during which competitors will highlight their achievements and goals in life and how they plan to use their “talents, passion, and ambition” to perform the job of Miss America. It will also revamp the evening gown part.

Even though it plans to get rid of some of its most controversial trappings and despite its rebranding as a “competition,” Miss America will still ultimately be a pageant. Young women will be paraded around and asked to jump through hoops to obtain an arbitrary title and some scholarship money.

”We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program, but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit,’ so guess what, you don’t have to do that anymore,” Carlson told GMA.

Miss America posted a video with the hashtag #ByeByeBikini on Twitter.

The talent competition, which distinguishes Miss America from its competitor Miss USA (which is owned by Miss Universe), will stay in, and the evening gown portion will be revamped to “give participants the freedom to outwardly express their self-confidence in evening attire of their choosing while discussing how they will advance their social impact initiatives,” according to the Miss America Organization’s press release announcing the change. What exactly that means isn’t clear.

The next competition will be held on September 9, 2018, in Atlantic City.

”Who doesn’t want to be empowered, learn leadership skills, and pay for college and be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul?” Carlson, the former Fox News host and Miss America 1989 who was tapped as chair of the organization in January, said on GMA.

Miss America doesn’t have the best history with its treatment of women

Miss America, which launched in 1921, has always entailed a swimsuit competition — and struggled to explain the point of keeping it in. It bills itself as “the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States” but can’t quite explain why it makes sense to base scholarships on who looks best in a bikini.

In the early ’90s, Miss America went as far as to ask viewers to vote on whether they should keep the swimsuit portion in, which they overwhelmingly did.

“We are not stupid,” Leonard Horn, the organization’s former chief executive, said in 1993. “We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles’ heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it.”

The pageant found itself in the midst of major controversy late last year when the Huffington Post uncovered emails between organization leadership talking about the contestants in lewd and vulgar ways. Lewis Friedman, the lead writer for Miss America, in one email to CEO Sam Haskell, referred to former winners as “cunts,” to which Haskell replied laughingly. Media consultant and Miss America board member Tammy Haddad in another email called former contestants a “pile of malcontents.”

Haddad and Haskell were critical of Carlson in their communications as well and according to the Huffington Post were angered by her push to modernize the organization. Haskell, Haddad, Miss America COO and president Josh Randle, and board chair Lynn Weidner resigned after the emails were published, and Carlson was named chair at the start of the year.

No swimsuits is a start — but it’s still a pageant

Carlson has become a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement and the broader conversation about how women are treated in American culture since filing a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against former Fox News chair and CEO Roger Ailes in 2016. Ailes was eventually forced to step down from his post.

At Miss America, Carlson has sought to overhaul some of the organization’s setup and practices. She has appointed several more women to its board and put in place an all-female leadership team. Last week, Miss America announced a partnership with the women’s political leadership organization IGNITE to promote female political engagement.

“We are moving [Miss America] forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution,” Carlson told GMA on Tuesday.

To be sure, these changes don’t wipe away the controversy around Miss America, nor does getting rid of the swimsuit competition signify some sort of cultural harbinger of female empowerment. As Rebecca Jennings at Racked points out, though Miss Teen USA — which is under the Miss Universe organization — axed its swimsuit contest, replacing the dress code instead with athletic wear, it’s definitely still a beauty pageant.

And there are certainly better ways to give out scholarship money to young women than having them parade around in evening gowns, demonstrate random party tricks dubbed talents, and attempt to answer complex questions about major policy and social issues, which policymakers struggle with for years, on the fly and in a matter of seconds.

Take a look at last year’s questions to the top five. Contestants were asked about potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the president’s reaction to white racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Paris climate agreement, Confederate statues, and whether football should be banned because of concussions.

They got 20 seconds to answer.

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