AMCULT 311 - Topics in Ethnic Studies
Section: 101 How to Win A Beauty Pageant: Race, Gender, Culture and U.S. National Identity
Term: SP 2009
Subject: American Culture (AMCULT)
Department: LSA American Culture
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May be elected twice for credit. May be elected more than once in the same term.
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In the past couple of years, pageant contestants and beauty queens have begun to appear with increasing regularity in the mainstream U.S. media. Tara Conner’s frequent partying and underage drinking were highly publicized when they almost lost her the Miss USA crown in 2006. The following year, a sex-tape scandal in the Miss America system left Miss New Jersey publicly dodging an anonymous would-be blackmailer. In 2007, Miss South Carolina Teen USA’s 30-second response about Americans and maps grew to such heights of popularity that it has since become one of the most watched YouTube clips of all time. And in recent months, pageantry intersected with politics as thousands of online viewers watched Governor Sarah Palin—vice-presidential hopeful and former Miss Congeniality—perform her flute solo in the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant talent competition.

Since the Miss America Pageant began in 1921, the popularity of beauty pageantry in the United States has ebbed and flowed. In that time, hundreds of other pageants have sprung up around the country, each with its own title and its own kind of claim on representative Americanness. This course examines that history, from the 1920s through the present, by focusing on a variety of pageants—from Miss America and Miss Universe to Miss Black USA and Miss India Georgia—and key moments in 20th and 21st century pageantry.

The aim of this course will be to critique beauty pageantry without being critical of it—to focus on what pageantry illuminates academically rather than on whether it is “right” or “wrong”. Pageants will serve as our case studies to understand the changing identity of the United States of America over time. We will travel through U.S. pageant history by decade, incorporating contemporaneous legal and cultural happenings, and applying relevant academic theories. Our investigations as a class will also consider what it takes to win a pageant and how notions like “beauty,” “poise,” “approachability,” “fitness,” “the full package,” and “the girl next door” relate to concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and nation. We will utilize the methods of cultural studies—historical investigation, literary close reading, anthropological ethnography, and critical discourse analysis—to “read” beauty pageantry intellectually, as a pop culture phenomenon that tells us stories about ourselves.

AMCULT 311 - Topics in Ethnic Studies
Schedule Listing
101 (REC)
MTuW 2:00PM - 4:00PM
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Coursepack Location:
University Library Course Reserves
ISBN: 9781403963017
There she is, Miss America : the politics of sex, beauty, and race in America's most famous pageant, Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan 2004
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