I think I was in my early 40s when I came across an astounding photo in an old family album. There was my mother in a two-piece bathing suit, albeit modest by today’s standards, and holding a trophy. In 1938, she had won some sort of beauty contest at a beach resort on the Jersey shore. My mom a babe? Who knew?
A little voice in my head said that directing my middle-aged male gaze at my mother was too creepy, so I turned the page. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture. My mom was 30 when I was born, so my earliest images of her were considerably more mature than the hottie in the old snapshot. Upon further reflection, I remembered old Miss America telecasts and how important they were in our household.
My grandmother was born in Atlantic City and my mother spent her summers there, so the Miss America pageant, typically held the weekend following Labor Day in Atlantic City, was a big deal. To her dying day, my grandmother considered Atlantic City “The Playground of the World,” even though the world had moved on to Las Vegas, Acapulco, Miami Beach, and other sybaritic destinations. The Miss America Pageant, which began in 1921, was perhaps the signature event of Atlantic City.
Every year, my mother and grandmother religiously watched the proceedings, occasionally joined by a neighbor or friend. I don’t remember where the menfolk were at this time. I don’t know if their absence was due to lack of interest or simply the realization that any sort of hubba-hubba/va-va-voom/hoo-hah response to the swimsuit competition would have been inappropriate.
I could have cared less till around 1963 when my hormones started kicking in. As a child, I had heard numerous comments about the various physical attributes of females…great gams…nice ass…man, she could poke your eyes out with those knockers, etc. I was aware that various movie stars, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, were female icons, and I had seen any number of animated cartoons with scenes involving males responding to eyeball candy (director Tex Avery was the clear leader in this regard, though Bob Clampett was a strong second).
When I was six years old, a Broadway musical called The Most Happy Fella introduced a song called Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go by). It became a popular ditty in the late 1950s and was covered by a number of artists. So I had some vague understanding that looking at women was something that men did and it was perfectly acceptable behavior but I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. I didn’t really get it till I hit puberty…or should I say, it hit me. Ah, now I see what you guys are talking about!
So at the age of 13, I injected myself into the annual viewing of the Miss America pageant at our house. I certainly didn’t care who won. Whether it was the “home team,” Miss Pennsylvania, or one of the 49 “visiting teams” was of no importance. I was just there for the parade of pulchritude.
That may sound pathetic, but in those days, young men had few choices. I vividly remember my first glimpse of Playboy at a friend’s house when I was 12. “My father says it’s good for me to have this,” he told me. His father was a psychiatrist. I’m not sure if mom had any say in the matter, or if she was even informed of it.
I was living in a less enlightened household and choices were limited. I was partial to the women’s underwear ads in the Sears catalog. Don’t let anyone tell you that granny panties aren’t sexy. In days of old, they were the norm. Some of my peers, obviously budding multiculturalists, fancied National Geographic. I suspect a lot of the collections of this publication one encounters at garage sales today were begun by adolescent males mesmerized by all that toplessness, or topfreeness, as it would be called today.
So in 1963, the chance to ogle 50 hot babes on TV, albeit in black and white, was a rare opportunity – and it could be done in plain sight, even though there were adult women in the same room!
Well, I kept my mouth shut, but the adult females in the room were outspoken. In my admittedly callow consciousness, all the contestants looked like knockouts; not so to my mother and grandmother. During the competition, their critical thinking skills got quite a workout:
“Her neck’s too long.”
“I don’t like her hair.”
“Her eyes are too far apart.”
“Look at the size of those feet.”
“Get a load of those thighs.”
“I think she’s already getting crow’s feet.”
“Are those falsies?”
“Her mouth is bigger than Martha Raye’s.”
“I can’t believe the schnozz on that one.”
Name any part of the female anatomy other than the big V, and my mother and grandmother had something to say about it. And when it came time for the talent competition, they made Simon Cowell look like Dale Carnegie.
Well, such behavior was a puzzler to me. At that time, I didn’t know my mom was a former beauty queen, but looking back now, it is ironic that she was so hypercritical. Geez, mom, couldn’t you – of all people – cut those poor girls some slack? My report cards never received such thorough scrutiny.
More than half a century later, however, those comments now provide me insight into the female psyche.
As a child, I’d witnessed any number of face-to-face interactions with my mother and her friends, and they never ragged on each other. Every new hairdo elicited comments such as “I love what you’ve done with your hair.” Never was heard a discouraging word. How could the hairdressers get it right 100% of the time? Didn’t they ever screw up?
Remember the old joke about men greeting each other after a long absence and insulting one another…but not meaning it, and women greeting each other after a long absence and complimenting one another…but not meaning it.
H.L. Mencken once said, “When women kiss it always reminds one of prize-fighters shaking hands.” He also defined misogynist as “a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.” Not a bad rejoinder if someone ever accuses you of being a misogynist. As a corollary, he also said, “On one issue, at least, men and women agree: they both distrust women.”
Such quotes certainly clash with the much-vaunted female herd instinct. There is strength in numbers when it comes to political ideologies, and since feminists “don’t need no man,” banding together amplifies their voices. Normal females, however, compete for the best available male, from high school till menopause (and, according to a recent article in an AARP publication, sometimes even as late as the nursing home).
So dissing the competition’s attributes is a form of female trash talk. And it persists long after the woman has captured a man. I think mature women correctly perceive younger women – even the ones they see on television or in other media – as a virtual threat to abscond with their men. So they have to pick them apart just to inflate their own egos. As women age, every glance into the mirror reveals a slow leak in desirability, and even the most overinflated female ego must eventually acknowledge that reality.
I don’t know if Mencken ever had anything to say about the Miss America pageant, but he did once nominate evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson for the contest. His distaste for holy rollers was legendary, so perhaps by linking Miss America with her, he was also getting in a dig at beauty contests.
Mencken and the Miss America Pageant were both riding high in the 1920s, but time has not been kind to them. During the late 60s and early 70s, the Miss America pageant was squarely in the crosshairs of the women’s liberation movement and demonstrations on the boardwalk in front of the Atlantic City Convention Center were commonplace.
By 1980, Bert Parks, who had hosted the pageant for 25 years and was almost synonymous with it, retired. But the pageant staggered on, now competing with Miss USA, Miss Universe, Mrs. America, and probably other pageants I don’t know about.
From 2005 to 2013, the Miss America pageant was held in Las Vegas, where it remained until 2014, when it returned to Atlantic City. I don’t know that I would interpret that as a return to traditionalism.
The current Miss America is Miss New York, one Kira Kazantsev. Her pet charity is a domestic violence program called “Love Shouldn’t Hurt.” A close reading of the text on the web site doesn’t turn up any recognition of battered men. Why am I not surprised?
Well, if my mom and grandma were still around, I’d sic them on Ms. Kazantsev. I think they’d rip her a new vagina. This time around, I would find the spectacle much more amusing.