Author and journalist Margot Mifflin’s newest book, Looking For Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, is a milestone: the first feminist cultural history of the Miss America pageant. The book has been receiving enthusiastic praise as a fascinating, perceptive, informative, and entertaining exploration of the pageant and its societal and cultural implications, an exploration that also places an uncompromising spotlight on American women’s history. Mifflin also wrote the first history of women’s tattoo culture, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, and followed it with the biography of a 19th-century white woman who was raised by the Mohave Tribe: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Margot Mifflin’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Vice, Elle, ARTnews, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New Yorker.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, among other publications.
What inspired you to write this book on the Miss America pageant? Did the experience of researching and writing it have any impact on you as a woman living and working in the United States?
I stumbled on it on TV five or six years ago and saw women marching around in swimsuits and couldn’t believe it was still happening. I wondered who still watched and why women still competed. And though there was some smart academic writing about it and, more generally, pageantry out there, I was stunned that no feminist critic had documented its history in one book. As I did the research, I discovered there was a lot the public didn’t know—how old it was (people tend to trace it back to the 50s/60s), that the scholarship money was significant and in some cases life-changing, that some fairly subversive women had competed—or dropped out of competing in protest of it, that many low-income women had genuinely benefitted from it in meaningful ways. I also learned, through my interviews, how much damage it did to some women in terms of their body image and self-esteem after losing.
The experience impacted me more as a writer and thinker than as a woman: early on, I briefly considered doing purely historical research to write it, then decided to interview local, state, and national winners, and that really changed my understanding of it; hearing about it directly from the people in it, and giving them voice in the book made it a very different book than what it might have been without their input. Though most of my writing has been journalism that involves interviews, this book drove home how important is it to get those first-hand perspectives, and it changed my understanding of Miss America, both debunking and reinforcing some of my preconceptions about it.
In the Introduction to your book, you write that the Miss America pageant “crystallizes many distinctly American impulses: a dual fixation on women’s virtue and sexuality, a baffling fascination with royalty (is there anything less American than a crown?), the belief that education and intellect can be demonstrated in a twenty-second interview, and the unshakable conviction that young women are the best women and it’s their duty to entertain you.” How do you find that these impulses are impacting our society today? Have we been able to transcend some of them, at least partially?
It’s all still there—we see the fascination with royalty in Americans’ enthusiasm for The Crown and Beyoncé’s “Black is King,” and many actresses over 35 are still getting put out to pasture as their youthful beauty fades. Female politicians are still judged on their appearance in ways men never are. But some things have changed: we’re seeing greater inclusivity in terms of both race and body diversity in advertising, and more older actresses are starring in film and TV roles (though few can extend their careers without plastic surgery). Social media has made it possible for women who would never have been crowned Miss America to promote their own beauty and talent without institutional affirmation from a place like the Miss America Organization. And now with more recognition of gender fluidity, the very idea that there is one perfect, paramount kind of national womanhood—especially the very conventionally feminine one Miss America rewards—is in decline.
In the complexity of cultural, societal, political, and psychological messaging around the female body, the tattoo has always been a powerful means of dismantling and shifting that messaging. You wrote two books that focus on the tattoo as a form of subversion, identity, and empowerment. Would you share with us some of the most surprising aspects you discovered in your research on the tattoo?
One of the most fascinating discoveries for me was the way a tattoo could be a mark of ethnicity: for Maori women I interviewed in New Zealand about 20 years ago, getting the chin tattoo (or moko kauae) was a reclamation of their suppressed cultural heritage and a visual representation of their identity. Likewise Olive Oatman, a white woman who was raised by Mohave Indians in California in the 1850s and tattooed on her chin and arms: the tattoos were symbols of belonging, of having become Mohave, and when she was ransomed back to white society, they marked her as an outsider in American society, as a woman who was no longer white. I was also struck by the transformative power of tattoos for some of the contemporary women I interviewed: that they were a way of reclaiming the body after sexual or domestic abuse, or of marking a transition out of a marriage.
You must get this question very often, but I can’t help asking it: what was it like to get to know President Barack Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College?
Actually, no one’s asked me that for a while! It was an exciting time because there was a lot of activism on campus, including a 1981 anti-apartheid rally where he made his first speech. (A friend and I videotaped it and though the film has never been shown, it will be included in the Obama Presidential Library when it opens.) He was in my poetry seminar (he was always late) and his best friend and roommate, Hasan Chandoo, was my boyfriend. They also hosted study sessions in their apartment and threw some great parties—Hasan made Indian food beforehand, and people danced to Talking Heads and Bill Withers and The Clash in their living room.
How did the Thomas J. Watson fellowship you received as a student impact you as a writer?
I didn’t set out to be a journalist, (I originally wanted to write fiction), but winning a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship laid the foundation for my career as a journalist. I spent a year traveling around the world interviewing people about their work, transcribing, correcting (the writer Paul Bowles sent back my transcript with corrections that are kind of embarrassing to see today, including the spelling of the work “kif”). And I interviewed some incredible people including the artist Yayoi Kusama, in the mental hospital where she still lives, the composer John Cage, the filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, the photographers Eikoh Hosoe and Duane Michals, and the artist Annette Messager, among others. It was thrilling to meet them in their homes and to engage with them, and it made me want to keep doing this kind of work.
You are a professor of English at Lehman College, CUNY, and of arts journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. How does teaching inform and inspire you as a writer?
I never really teach the same material more than a few times because it can become rote, so teaching forces me to try to stay attuned to what’s happening in culture, especially in my graduate course in arts criticism. I also learn a lot from students—about what they’re reading or watching or thinking about. My undergrads in my essay class, who are majority Latinx, read a piece this semester about the usefulness of the term Latinx (versus Latino or Hispanic) and had wildly different opinions about this term; I learned as much from their reactions to it than I had from the essay itself. My graduate class is getting ready for a session with Soraya Nadia McDonald, who was a Pulitzer finalist for criticism last year; it’s always really enlightening to read a guest’s work closely both in preparation for the session but also to dissect it with students. And a few of my students with truly remarkable stories have inspired or appeared in a few essays I’ve written.
What advice would you give girls growing up in today’s United States of America?
Read about women’s history to understand how we got to where we are now, to recognize the women who paved the way and what they were up against, and to see that women’s history is American history.
To learn more about Margot Mifflin and her work, please visit her website.