Apologies are a first world problem. People in other countries worry about fleeing genocide, getting enough to eat and avoiding the Ebola virus. But in our pampered little corner of the universe, we are obsessed about our “rights,” including the right not to be offended. That usually leads to a demand, implicit or explicit, for an apology when we feel wronged. And in this give-everyone-a-trophy era, we usually get one.
Sometimes, the apology is pro-forma, as in “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my words,” which, as we all know, really means, “I’m only doing this, you idiot, because I will lose my job if I don’t.”
Sometimes, an apology is heartfelt and spontaneous, although it is telling that I can’t immediately come up with one of those.
And then you have the apologies that will send you into a diabetic coma, the kind of mea culpa that makes wearing a hair shirt or lying on a bed of nails seem tame in comparison. Those of us who watched the Miss America pageant this past weekend were treated, if that’s the word, to one such display of smarmy obsequiousness, presented to a live national audience to boost the ratings of a show that has been hemorrhaging viewers since Gloria Steinem started yapping about how disrespectful it was to see doctoral candidates in bathing suits twirl a baton.
On Sunday night, during the show’s opening segment, Sam Haskell, the pageant’s executive chairman, delivered the following to dethroned alumna Vanessa Williams, who looked as if she had been freeze-dried in 1984 and thawed out for the occasion:
“I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Those words were accompanied by the kind of body language that an ancient Mayan might have displayed toward one of the various goddesses he worshiped at the foot of the volcano.
And Vanessa kind of cooed, and kind of swayed, and kind of demurred in that “it’s so not necessary, and if you hadn’t done this, do you honestly believe I would have dragged my bigger-than-this-pageant self to your stage, buster?” kind of way.
As I watched this spectacle from the safety of my bed, poignantly surrounded by Pringles and carbonated beverages, it occurred to me that we’ve now come full circle with Miss America. When it started out, almost a century ago, the pageant honored the ideal of national womanhood, circa 1920. Granted, that ideal has evolved significantly over the decades, but there was always the understanding that, in theory at least, Miss America was supposed to be virtuous, ethical and conduct herself with dignity (in high heels, which fully justifies the crown and the scholarship money, in my opinion.)
Then, we went through a stage where feminists started railing against the whole idea of the “perfect woman” whose virtue was above the biblical price of rubies. The bra burners became bridge burners and wanted to amputate the pageant from its Norman Rockwell roots, mocking the fact that women would submit to cattle calls in bathing suits for money and a washing machine.
Miss America stood firm against the criticism and attempted, in its quaint and increasingly anachronistic way, to emphasize the solid, wholesome values that represented a rosy-colored yet still valid vision of female Americana.
I remember as a young woman watching the show, and thinking that even though I would never rate a crown, I could still relate to these contestants much more than I could to the over-sexualized women of the Miss USA or Universe pageants or, conversely, the feminist drudges that showed up on PBS.
It was around this time that Vanessa Williams came on the scene, charming everyone with her exotic beauty, her exquisite talent and — the elephant in the room that started trumpeting very loudly — her race. Williams was the first black Miss America, and back in 1983, that was something pretty darn amazing. People who were excited by Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, a full quarter-century later, have to admit that Vanessa Williams brought some significant hope and change of her own.
And then, the bombshell: Shortly before the end of her reign, pictures of a nude Williams were published in Penthouse. Williams said that she hadn’t authorized their release, but she didn’t deny posing for them. And we all know what happened after that. She was figuratively stripped of her crown, literally stripped of her title and forced to become a mammoth star of stage, screen and record label.
Fact: Williams violated a morals clause in a contractual agreement that she signed before competing for Miss America. She lied, violated the contract, and rendered it null and void. To my mind, Miss America had no choice but to revoke the title.
But it’s not just about the pictures. Part of the agreement Williams signed included a pledge that she’d never been pregnant. Years later in her autobiography, she admitted to having an abortion before competing in the pageant.
So while I don’t necessarily believe she should have apologized to the pageant, I’m outraged that the pageant apologized to her. She lied. She made good money off of being a victim of the circumstantial sash. Even the real Miss America 1984, New Jersey home girl Suzette Charles, thinks the apology was a ratings ploy.
Ratings or not, it did what Gloria Steinem could never do: turned me off on the pageant. If ratings is more important for the organization than integrity (perhaps it always was, but I’m naive) then I’ll take my personal Neilson share elsewhere.
Vanessa Williams didn’t deserve the crown or the apology. And from what I could see Sunday night, she didn’t give a damn about either.
Neither do I, anymore.
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Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at [email protected]