I don’t know if the people behind the Miss America pageant owed Vanessa Williams an apology, but she definitely was owed something from them.
However, others don’t see it that way. In particular, Demetria Lucas D’Oyley, who penned a piece for The Root entitled, The Miss America Pageant Doesn’t Owe Vanessa Williams an Apology.
According to Lucas D’Oyley:
During last night’s pageant broadcast, Miss America CEO Sam Haskell III invited Williams to the stage and apologized to her and her mother, saying, “You have lived your life with grace and dignity. … I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you will always be.”
Knowing that I will likely be reamed for saying this, because Williams is a talented actress, singer and a beloved celebrity—especially in the black community—I’m saying it anyway: She deserved to be forced to resign, and the Miss America organization didn’t owe her an apology.
The organization’s reaction to Williams’ pictures wasn’t overblown in the ’80s, and those images should garner about a similar reaction today. The organization’s reaction also was not racist. (The fact that Williams’ replacement, Suzette Charles, was also black kinda kills that argument.)
Lucas D’Oyley said she came to this conclusion after seeing the racy pictures, which ran in Penthouse over 20 years ago, but are now available on the web. While she said she takes no issue with “sex between consenting adults,” she does believe that those images were not “in line with the mission of the organization” or “fit the position she held.”
Likewise, she writes:
Yes, Williams was barely legal when those pictures were taken. I read in a 1984 article in People magazine that she naively believed that the images would be in silhouette and her face would not be shown. Williams was a young girl who made a series of bad decisions. (She did two nude photo shoots, not one.) And the cost was being asked to step down as Miss America. It was a hard way to learn a necessary lesson about actions and consequences. There was no need for the Miss America organization to apologize for teaching it to her.
If you haven’t seen the pictures, you won’t see them here. But you are free to Google them. To be honest, they are pretty racy images, including one picture of a nude woman simulating oral sex on the “Save The Best For Last” singer. And I can certainly see how those images could raise an eyebrow or two.
But, I also don’t how I feel about framing Williams’s racy images as contrary to the mission of the Miss American organization. After all, the Miss America organization claims that it “represents the highest ideals” that a typical “American Girl might well emulate.” But many women, particularly feminists, have long taken issue with the beauty contest for a number of reasons, including the exploitation of women and their sexuality and reinforcing trite, Eurocentric beauty standards.
Matter of fact, it was in 1968 when hundreds of feminists stormed the boardwalk in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America pageant. According to this report by PBS:
One of the protest’s leading organizers was 27-year-old writer and editor Robin Morgan. In the group’s manifesto written to explain the protest of the Miss America Pageant, “No More Miss America!,” Morgan took direct aim at what she called “the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol” so prevalent in the media. Morgan attacked the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.” She also attacked the pageant’s beauty standards as racist. As of 1968, no African American woman had taken a place among the contest’s finalists.
Morgan went on to condemn “the unbeatable madonna-whore combination” and the mixed messages women were socialized to accept. “To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy or should we say [ill-tempered] … Miss America and Playboy’s centerfolds are sisters under the skin.” In addition, in sending pageant contestants and winners to entertain troops in Vietnam, the women served as “death mascots” in an immoral war. Morgan asked, “Where else could one find such a perfect combination of American values — racism, militarism, capitalism — all packaged in one ‘ideal’ symbol, a woman.”
And more than 40 years later, not much has changed.
What’s interesting is that Williams was ultimately punished for exploiting her own body as opposed to letting the organization do it for her. Not to mention the pictures were published in Penthouse without her consent. She was a victim. And she was victimized again when the organization disassociated itself from her instead of having her back against the slut-shaming as well as racist comments.