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KEVIN LEININGER: There she goes, Miss America . . . and, at this point, why should anybody care?

Are you enjoying this photo? What's wrong with you? (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve watched beauty pageants’ swimsuit competitions — and enjoyed them.

In this #MeToo era of heightened sensitivity and enlightenment, that admission no doubt will land me on somebody’s list of potential sexual predators. So perhaps it’s just as well the Miss America Organization has decreed contestants will keep their clothes on instead will be judged not on their looks but, in the words of former Miss America, CNBC reporter and alleged sexual harassment victim Gretchen Carlson, on the basis of “what comes out of their mouths.”

Perhaps emphasizing the ever-popular question-and answer portion really will restore the nearly century-old pageant’s popularity and prestige. Then again, pageant organizers might want to study another former American icon’s recent history before congratulating themselves for reforming and preserving an event that did, after all, begin in the early 1900s as an Atlantic City bathing-beauty contest.

Founded in 1953 by an obscure University of Illinois psychology graduate named High Heffner, Playboy Magazine made hedonism seem not only acceptable but even intellectual in a nation still watching black-and-white TVs, twirling Hula Hoops and liking Ike. By 2015, though, the magazine’s airbrushed centerfold had long since been rendered passe by cultural changes and ubiquitous Internet porn. So Playboy did the previously unthinkable and went nudity-free.

But no nudes proved to be bad news. Although newsstand sales jumped 28 percent — it seems some people really do read Playboy for the articles — subscription sales fell by a similar amount, and the centerfolds were back a year later.

“I’ll be the first to admit the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake,” the founder’s son, Cooper Hefner, stated at the time. “Today, we’re taking our identity back and rediscovering who we are.”

Or, as public relations expert Ryan McCormick told Fox News, “Playboy without nudity, even in its dated depiction, is like Christmas without Santa Claus.”

Yes, and Miss America without bathing suits is little more than a talent-and-speech contest featuring young women who just happen to be better-looking than average. Or not.

The point here is not to minimize the very real abuses that sparked the #MeToo movement, excuse previous pageant scandals or even to justify leering, as normal or non-gender-specific as not may be. But as Playboy found out and Miss America, the Boy Scouts and others will discover, few institutions can prosper by abandoning the roots that nourished their growth in the first place.

For Miss America, change was inevitable. The pageant drew 5.6 million television viewers in 2017, down from 6.2 million the previous year, and ABC had dropped the pageant in 2004 after a steep ratings decline of about 500,000 fewer viewers. The total viewership of 9.8 million was a record low at the time.

But will more Americans really tune in to hear answers to questions like: Did New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady cheat by deflating the football in a playoff game against the Colts? (Answer: “I’m not sure. I think I’d have to be there to see the ball and feel it and make sure.”)

Or this, in reply to a question about the gender gap: “I think we can relate this back to education, and . . . how . . . we are continuing . . . to try to strive . . . to . . . figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem right now. I think, especially the men are . . . um . . . seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to see how to . . . create education better . . . So that we can solve this problem. Thank you.”

Answering tough, high-stakes questions on live TV is no easy task, but that hardly makes the exercise compelling entertainment. Perhaps as a culture we really have moved beyond ogling bathing beauties — except on the beach, of course — but that doesn’t mean we want to be lectured about how to achieve world peace, either.

“There she is . . . Miss America,” Bert Parks used to croon.

Yes, and there she goes. And when the end finally comes, few will even notice.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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