KATHLEEN PARKER: As new Miss America chairwoman, Gretchen Carlson comes full circle
WASHINGTON -- If karma is a b----, justice is a beauty queen.
After recent revelations that the CEO of the Miss America Organization and its pageant scriptwriter were talking trash about past winners, the board fired them both and installed Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America 1989 and Fox News anchor, as its new chairwoman.
Carlson, you might say, was in the right place at the right time -- one she basically created. It isn’t exaggeration to say that Carlson launched the ongoing anti-harassment crusade when she sued her former boss, Fox News founder Roger Ailes. He left the company, and Fox settled with Carlson for a rumored $20 million.
Next, Carlson wrote a book about her experience, “Be Fierce,” which shined an even brighter light on the frequent and largely ignored incidence of sexual harassment. Now she has been crowned again, this time as the head of the organization that first put her on the national map decades ago.
Although she didn’t technically start the #MeToo movement that took over social media several months ago, she should be credited with helping bestir women to find their voices. An idea needs mass and energy to become a movement, and the purging of Fox’s misogynist man cave seems to have been the pebble that caused the ripple that became the tsunami that led to dozens (and still counting) of powerful men being fired nationwide following accusations of sexual misconduct.
With her recent anointment, Carlson has come full circle in what must feel like justice for this Stanford graduate and world-class violinist. Always confident and a little bullheaded, by her own accounting, she was an unlikely victim. But her experience at Fox and her many interviews with other women helped her discover a greater purpose. That such nasty disrespect toward women should surface, of all places, at the Miss America Organization is alternately shocking and juicy fruit for the tartly inclined. CEO Sam Haskell and writer Lewis Friedman weren’t merely disrespectful; they were disgusting. Also, one notes, stupid.
It all started in 2014 with an email from Haskell to Friedman about changing the telecast script: “I have decided that when referring to a woman who was once Miss America, we are no longer going to call them Forever Miss Americas ... please change all script copy to reflect that they are Former Miss Americas!”
Friedman replied, “I’d already changed ‘Forevers’ to ‘C--ts.’ Does that work for you?”
“Perfect ... bahahaha,” Haskell replied.
This is doubtless amusing to pageant haters, but outrage from more than 50 former pageant winners muffled the chortles of those who find such remarks entertaining. These apparently included some of the board members, who also have resigned. The emails might have gone unnoticed -- and, in fact, did for a few years -- were it not for the fact that several million women are in a bad mood at the moment.
The irony is that feminists, including the #MeToo cavalry, might be expected to rally alongside Carlson and other Miss Americas to fight the boys-will-be-boys excuse for sexual misconduct. But we’ve learned from past episodes that many feminists suffer selective outrage. The rebuffing of Democratic Sen. Al Franken, notwithstanding, they are hard-pressed to align themselves with beauty queens, whose participation in contests involving a bikini strut and cultivation of an “ideal” woman (circa 1950) is viewed as a symbolic obstacle in the battle for equality.
Rallying the troops for Barbie is a hard sell as long as she’s prancing around nearly naked before judges who will decide whether she’s got the right stuffing. Acknowledging this conflict of interests doesn’t change the reality, however, that young women who have put in the time, sweat and investment required to compete in a national competition deserve at least respect, especially from the organization that sponsors them.
The contestants may not be everyone’s ideal of womanhood, but whom do they hurt? After nearly 100 years of pageants, there’s no record of a Miss America posing a danger to society. Nor, one may rationally infer, has any winner felt objectified by the $50,000 scholarship money, or the appearances contract with Dick Clark Productions.
So, she can’t be married while she holds the title. Nor can she have been pregnant or had an abortion, though no one asks. Are these restrictions really so essential to full female autonomy? And, finally, who cares?! The pageant is a tradition, for better or worse. As an agnostic observer, I suspect that Carlson will make it better and perhaps lead this archaic institution toward a female role model who more closely resembles who we aspire to be.