Opinion

opinion | Jennifer Graham

Are pageants really for thinking people?

Even in Cambridge, the dusty tradition trudges on, heels and all

2014 Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge Pageant contestants wait onstage for the announcement of the winners.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe/file
2014 Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge Pageant contestants wait onstage for the announcement of the winners.

Bostonians are thinking people; in fact, according to demographer Joel Kotkin, Greater Boston is the smartest metropolis in the nation. So why is there still a Miss Boston, and even more alarmingly, why do we have a Miss Cambridge?

Thinking people, after all, give prizes to people who’re the smartest, not women who’re the prettiest. And for all of pageantry’s insistence that looks don’t matter (wink, wink), that it’s about poise, talent, and the ability to be articulate under bright lights on a stage, the swimsuit competition staggers on, a triceratops in stilettos.

The swimsuits, of course, are said to reveal fitness, not sex appeal, but in our six-pack society, that’s the same. Like Hanes’ outrageous crotch-shot commercials, the swimsuit competition is porn for evangelicals, a defiant throwback to the pre-Jon-Benet age when pageants didn’t look so much like child abuse.

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There’s an ocean of distance, of course, between child pageants and those that are preliminaries for the state pageants that lead ultimately to the crowning of Miss America. The women who will compete to be Miss Boston and Miss Cambridge in the bewilderingly dual pageant — which begins at 5 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Back Bay Sheraton — are between the ages of 17 and 24, and as such, of sound mind and sounder bodies, and are of the age of consent.

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In itself, this is a bewildering thing; judge not, that you not be judged, and all that. To those of us who dwell outside the gated and sequined community that is modern pageantry, it is puzzling that there exist people for whom it’s not only rational, but fun, to submit to organized judgment of strangers. But this is no less perplexing than the open pageant system itself, in which a young woman who lives in, say, Attleboro can compete for the title of Miss Massachusetts as the reigning Miss Cambridge. The whole system is an exercise in brow furrowing for the doughy of abs.

There is an earnestness about the organizers, volunteers all, that softens the sardonic impulse that the pageant system invites. The board president of the Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge pageant, Stephanie Janes, is a communications professional who teaches spinning at the Boston Athletic Club and sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. No slouch in the realm of personal achievement, she appears the consummate contestant, though she didn’t compete in pageants until relatively elderly — at age 22.

Without apology, Janes concedes today’s “scholarship pageants” are virtually the same as the “beauty pageants” my family watched on TV 40 years ago. But that’s okay, she reasons, because the contestants themselves have changed. “We’re seeing women from all walks of life who are pretty diverse; we’re seeing more women who have opinions and platforms like bullying and LGBT rights,” Janes told me. “The core competition itself hasn’t changed. The contestants themselves have shaped the future of the pageant.”

Moreover, once seen as a big-haired bastion of the South, recent pageants have been dominated by Northeastern states. “The Northeast is basking in the glow of an unheard of winning streak in pageantry, having produced a string of major pageant winners that is virtually unparalleled in pageantry and has seemingly broken the back of the legendary Southern pageant powerhouse,” gushes the website pageantcenter.com, noting the triumph of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York in recent installments of Miss USA, Miss America, and Miss Universe (which, after South Carolina’s Miss Hell Hole Swamp, is the most ridiculously named pageant of all time).

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Well, hyperbole happens. And it’s true that Miss Kansas of 2013 was a tattooed sergeant in the Army National Guard who seems to have more in common with the Discovery Channel’s “Alaskan Bush People” than with TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras.”

But the pageant system, for the most part, still seems a bit dusty, if only because of its title. Kelly Clarkson had a hit with “Miss Independent” but in reality, no modern woman wants to be called “Miss” anymore unless a crown is attached. As an honorific, it’s a diminutive that’s time has long passed. Not so the pageant system, which endures as a niche, as relative to the real lives of Americans as hairy Alaskans living off the grid. Infinitely easier on the eyes, though.

Related:

2013 | Bella English: FYI, beauty pageants don’t empower women

This is Jennifer Graham’s last regular Monday column for the Globe. She moves to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette starting Jan. 12. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.