Vanessa Williams Is The Only Miss America Who Matters

It's so weird that this competition still exists.

Try to name another Miss America besides Vanessa Williams. You can't. Who even won this year? I'm not kidding; I actually watched and I don't know the name of the person who won. I mean, I could definitely Google it, but without Googling it, all I know is that Vanessa Williams was there. And that one of the gowns had a crop top.

What is even the point of the Miss America competition in 2015? Don't say scholarships. John Oliver proved that isn't true. Even if it was, making women wear bikinis to win money for college is only slightly less barbaric than if it was just a sandwich-making pageant judged by Hugh Hefner's penis.

NBC via Getty Images

The Miss America Competition is formalized objectification with a question-and-answer portion that lets the hosts pretend it's what's on the inside that counts. Given that logic, it's especially absurd Vanessa Williams had her crown snatched for posing nude. Shouldn't we be thrilled she was offering up her body for the male gaze and eliminating the trifling sex obstacle that is the two-piece?

Alas, American sexism is more complex than that.

Let's go back in time. It's 1984. Here, play Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It." Williams is the first ever African-American Miss America, she's experiencing hate from people upset that she's black or not black enough. She rejects all the backlash, taking a strong pro-choice stance and actively discussing civil rights. She's proving everyone wrong and blowing critics away. Then disaster Puritanical nonsense strikes.

NBC via Getty Images

Now play Lionel Richie's "Hello."

News breaks that Penthouse will release nude photos of Williams. She's blindsided. As the story goes, when Williams posed for the photos, the photographer said he wanted to experiment with silhouettes. She agreed, thinking it was an experimental shoot that wouldn't be published. Despite that information, the Miss America committee tells Williams she has 72 hours to resign or have her title forcibly removed.

After she steps down, the photos hit shelves. Penthouse makes over $14 million in sales, because PornHub doesn't exist yet, I guess. Williams is disgraced, and not just by the purveyors of her tiara. She auditions for "My One and Only" on Broadway and is called a "whore" by a producer who refuses to cast her. At least eight record labels turn her down, including one executive who tells her manager and now-ex-husband Ramon Hervey that he will never pay to resuscitate Williams' image.

Yvonne Hemsey via Getty Images

And yet, she perseveres. If anything, as one friend put it in Williams' bio-documentary, the struggle "put a fire in her belly" to succeed. She eventually breaks through singing backup vocals for George Clinton. In 1988, four years after her public shaming, she is signed as a solo artist and releases "The Right Stuff."

OK, now play, "Save the Best for Last."

The rest is legend. Williams' current list of awards and nominations is almost as long as the list of total Miss Americas. She is a symbol of perseverance and excellence in the face of adversity. Still, it took more than 30 years for the Miss America organization -- now couched in her wild success -- to come around and admit they were wrong. While part of the fallout she faced was a product of the time, the way we treat nude photos today isn't much different.


Donald Kravitz via Getty Images

It's only in recent years that the "shamed starlet" narrative has began to crumble.

Consider that when private photos of Vanessa Hudgens were leaked in 2007, she was forced into contrition, with Disney making a public statement on her "lapse in judgement" and media outlets having the nerve to ask how Zac Efron felt about the whole thing. In 2011, despite refusing to apologize, Scarlett Johansson's nude pictures sent to her then husband Ryan Reynolds were still charted as a scandal narrative. It was only with the massive hack in 2014 that defeating the stigma became remotely possible, with Jennifer Lawrence rightfully calling the leak a "sex crime."

Still, the awful/wrong/sexist/definitely wrong questioning of why each woman took nude photos in the first place lingers. The cycle of blame reinforces a culture of misogyny that allows us to police women's bodies while still treating them as objects. Whether the photographer ran into Williams' dressing room and snapped a picture or she Snapchatted her fallopian tubes to Phil Collins, we'd find a way to stigmatize the act -- not based on whatever agency she played in releasing the photos, but the very fact of her lady bits existing.

That Williams' rise coincided with such a sexist ritual of bikinis and sequins makes for an itchy juxtaposition of the paradoxical standards by which we regulate female sexuality. The Miss America that was founded in 1921 started with points awarded for head and limb construction. If you want to argue that, since then, asking contestants about #Deflategate has elevated things, well, then, sure, live in that fantasy world. It sounds terrible. In Williams' case, the ritual succeeds only in casting our gendered oppression in sharper relief.

We're happy to indulge female sexuality, just as long as the women we're objectifying are under control. That's the reality in and outside of the Miss America microcosm; it's just a bit more obvious during their annual parade of beauty standards. Without an overhaul of the very structure of the event -- without it being canceled altogether and replaced with a two-hour Vanessa Williams tribute event, really -- the committee's three-decades-late apology is about as useful as a strip of butt glue immediately following the swimsuit competition.

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Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca

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