Religion, Miss America, and the Construction of Evangelical Womanhood
Christian engagement with beauty contests shifted dramatically between the initial Miss America pageant in 1921 and its 90th anniversary in 2011. This dissertation explores how and why many Christians found the organization an institution worthy of partnership with the church. It examines three aspects of Christian involvement in the contest: the long history of beauty pageants, the persistent emphasis on individual physical attractiveness, and the idea of witness in southern evangelical culture. It argues that after 1965, at least two factors enabled the unlikely marriage of Christians and the Miss America Organization: the perceived threat of second-wave feminism and evangelicalism's increasing desire to engage culture. In addition, Christian contestants gained rewards, both tangible and intangible, from their pageant participation. Most significantly for some Christian women, the competition functioned as an arena in which women could serve as Christian evangelists. Pleasure, prizes, performance, and purpose: contestants found all these and more on the stage. The goal here is not to prove that the Miss America pageant is somehow inherently religious, but rather that the Christians who participated in the contest were dealing with multiple expectations from church and culture that dictated, influenced, and explained their experience. This dissertation describes the place Christian women found in the Miss America pageant for their religious self-understanding. By telling the story of Christian women in a gendered and sexualized arena, I hope to emphasize the flexibility of gender roles and religious mores inherent in Christian participation.
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