I’ve been thinking a lot about pageants.
A fun fact about me to know and trade: my cousin is a former Miss Teen of Florida.1 In the early 1990s, I flew from Erie, PA,2 to lovely Rock Island, Illinois (with a stop in Akron, Ohio, I think), to watch her make the Top Ten in the national pageant, which was held on the campus of Augustana College that year. It was the first and only pageant3 I’ve been to in person.4
It was … fine? Much like football, a pageant is best watched on TV. There’s a lot of filler and waiting around for things to happen when you are in the audience. The interview and evening gown segments were fun. Who doesn’t love pretty dresses and young women being asked impossible questions?5 No one sensible, that’s who.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, which means I am of an age where some of the best bonding moments I had with my mom were during the Miss America pageant. They still had a swimsuit competition then, which was fig-leafed as being all about poise but was totally there for the ratings because mostly naked nubile women draws eyeballs. The industry had just started promoting these events as about scholarships rather than beauty. We all knew the truth, however. As long as you could string a sentence together, it was all about what you looked like.
Now I can look back on them and mutter something about third-wave feminism. Then, tho. These were the women who seemed to be what women should be: walking, talking Barbie dolls who didn’t mind being scored on how closely they hewed to the feminine ideal. I wanted to be one, sorta. But not really. But maybe a little. And I so wanted to swan about in an evening gown.
This was long before JonBenet Ramsey and Toddlers and Tiaras. In my teenage brain, a pageant was a way for a young woman to make some money6 and open a few doors. It was a way to bring a community together, sorta, through sponsorships and/or donations. Pageants weren’t yet the industry they now are. They were wholesome, as long as you didn’t look too closely.
Now, however, those industrial-scale pageants full of babies and adolescents are weird and exploitative. I can acknowledge it is a system I used to simply accept as part of being female but now have some BIG issues with. But small pageants? The sort that are focused on a specific place? They still have my heart.
Which is why I watched Miss Snake Charmer, now on Hulu. I loved it.
The pageant is part of Sweetwater, Texas’ annual Rattlesnake Round-up. In the 1950s, the Round-up was about gathering and killing the poisonous snakes that plagued the town. The next year, the pageant was added. Now, the event seems to be more about snake education/cooking/firearms with a side of snake killing.7 Awards are given for the pounds of live rattler a team can collect. When you live in small town America, you make your own fun.
Like most pageant contestants, Miss Snake Charmer herself is expected to be poised, smart, and put-together. She also needs to be able to behead and skin a rattlesnake.
While Miss Snake Charmer can win a scholarship,8 the girls seem to compete because they are getting something less tangible out of it, like confidence or connection or any number of human emotions that can’t be monetized. I can see my oldest kid in these young women. I can see myself in them, too.
The filmmakers do a great job of showing who these girls are and how they don’t fit the idea you might have in your head of what a pageant girl is, at least on this local scale. The adults involved appear to genuinely care about the experience the girls have and coach them how to negotiate interviews and manage stage fright. It’s a heart-warming picture of a community9 who knows that it takes a village.
While I was watching Miss Snake Charmer, I couldn’t help but think about my region’s answer to the local pageant. We’re too cold most of the year for rattlesnakes but have plenty of cows. Every year, a county-level Dairy Princess (and her court) is chosen.10 She travels throughout the land promoting all that milk can make. During the 18 years we’ve lived here, at various fairs and fetes, I’ve been served ice cream, grilled cheeses11, and yogurt by that year’s Princess or a member of her court. I’ve stopped a Princess for a selfie. Each and every one has more grace and calm at 17 than I had at 40.
These small pageants vibrate a such a different frequency that you can’t really compare them to the high gloss and glamour shots ones on the TV. I’d watch the heck out of an episodic show about regional pageants devoted to the local flora and fauna — and about the young women who take on this very specific rite of passage, regardless of whether or not they are required to skin an animal to be crowned.
This cousin and I are less than a year apart age-wise and one of our older great-aunts used to refer to her as the pretty one and me as the smart one. Which, as an adult, my only response is “REALLY?” But clearly stuck with me in a primal way as a kid.
The closest airport to where I was attending college.
for humans, that is. I’ve done stories on animal-type pageants like cat shows.
The organization seems to not exist anymore, for what that’s worth. It isn’t Miss Teen USA, anyway, which seems to be the only one that has an internet presence. WAIT! I spoke too soon. It was the Miss Teen of America pageant! This is who won it.
How would you solve world hunger? Who is your biggest role model? What is the velocity of an unladen swallow?
either scholarship or otherwise
I lived in Texas and am 100% on-board with killing rattlers. In fact, one of my favorite parts of this doc are the anecdotes from women who have been surprised by a snake, which they then had to kill, lest it kill them or their kids. Texas is no joke when it comes to poisonous critters, y’all.
The dollar amounts for these scholarships are tiny. The girls spend more on their gowns than they receive in college funds. I have feelings about this that go well beyond this newsletter, however.
Yeah. I know Sweetwater is imperfect. All places are imperfect.
There’s a statewide contest for all of the county/regional-level dairy princesses, too. This year’s New York State Princess is Black, btw. It’s a first. I have yet to meet a NYS Dairy Princess, however. We don’t seem to hang in the same circles.