JOPLIN, Mo. —
We don't like when a sexist contest provokes a racist response.
Come on, Miss America viewers, you're better than that.
Those upset with the crowning of Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, as the first Indian-American to win the crown took their displeasure to Twitter, referring to her as Miss 7-11, Miss Al Qaeda and other asinine slurs.
Bigots and idiots, which so often go hand in hand, described Davuluri as a foreigner, an Arab, a terrorist even. Stupid, stupider, and stupidest.
Do we really look to anachronistic beauty pageants to measure societal progress? After all, it wasn't until 1984 that the pageant crowned its first African-American, the famously dethroned Vanessa Williams, who is also the pageant's most successful alum. 1984? Good grief.
Surely we recognize this as a contest in which a young woman saunters across a stage in high heels and a bikini and asks to be judged for how she looks in it. Males have preening competitions, too. Where is our Mr. America? And why don't we care how he handles the burning controversy of Julie Chen getting her eyes done?
This year's pageant was a spectacle replete with bizarreness, such as Lance Bass of the '90s boy band 'N Sync grading a contestant's soundbite about the United States intervening in Syria.
It was a pageant rife with contradictions: The winner, who confesses struggling with bulimia, was investigated by the organization for allegedly calling her predecessor "fat as ****."
Physical beauty, a personal and subjective standard, of course, relies on its beholder. It transcends the categories that may divide us. A society's beauty ideals say much about its values and aspirations. And as those beauty ideals evolve, they hold a mirror to larger societal shifts.
The most intriguing underlying question throughout the Miss America pageant is: Who gets to represent us? Who do we hold up as a pinnacle female, a representative of our country's beauty, ideals and, ahem, talent (loosely defined)?
For some, it wasn't the two finalists -- both of them Asian women representing the coasts -- who looked like "real" America to them. It may have been the tatted blonde from the Midwest.
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, became the first Miss America contestant to show off tattoos during the swimsuit competition: the insignia of the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her left shoulder and the Serenity Prayer along the right side of her torso. (Donald Trump, owner of the competing Miss Universe franchise, publicly derided the popularity of getting inked and says his pageant doesn't encourage tattoos. He, of course, knows a thing or two about embracing questionable aesthetic choices.)
Vail's tattoos weren't the only first. Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, was born without her left forearm. Her confidence spoke to the changes in how we view people with disabilities.
There was Miss Florida, Myrrhanda Jones, still looking glamorous as she sported a bejeweled knee brace after tearing her ACL during a rehearsal. Perseverance is a sexy accessory.
In 2010, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim American to wear the Miss USA crown. There was an expected backlash to that choice, as well. The xenophobia prompted those who typically roll their eyes at pageants to defend the winner. Some base level of ignorance will likely always be with us.
When someone tweets that Davuluri should be wearing a red dot on her head, that insult hits close to home for many Americans of South Asian heritage.
In its 87-year history, the pageant has risen and fallen in popularity. For years, it was dropped by a major network because so few viewers were interested in watching. Then, in 2011 and 2012, the telecast was the highest-rated nonsports event in its timeslot across networks. While I wouldn't want to watch the show with my young children, I'm tempted to selectively share the stories of a few contestants -- the ones whose imperfect lives overshadow their flawless faces.
As ethnic and racial lines continue to blur in this country, as our national identity continues to evolve, moments in pageants like this capture our imagination.
Yet, there's this ridiculous message the pageant peddles: We enjoy judging women on their looks and bodies, and we will set as a body ideal a standard impossible for the vast majority of women on this planet.
But there's another revelation at play: Whether Muslim or Evangelical, whether brown or white, whether you twirl a baton or shake it like a Bollywood star, you can rock that tiara for this country.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.