The Miss America contest, origin myths and visual triggers
A 24-year old New York woman won the Miss America contest Sunday night, giving the Empire State back-to-back victories. Nina Davuluri, who wants to become a physician like her father, is an American. But her exotic appearance reflects her heritage, which is Indian. As in India.
And it was her appearance — her brown skin, as it were — that was immediately called out in social media channels.
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, was the darling for many conservatives. The blonde is a sergeant in the U.S. Army, hunts deer and supports the NRA.
I’m not sure which is worse: this tweet from FOX Radio personality Todd Starnes or the number of retweets:
Never mind that the first Europeans to settle in the Americas were Spanish. Before the Mayflower (not blonde-haired folks either).
what is the oldest European city in the US? http://t.co/yiDWpZeNoH In 1565, they founded St. Augustine, Florida, now the oldest Europ…
— Kathy E Gill (@kegill) September 2, 2013
Or that there is no such thing as “American values” that everyone in the country has ever agreed upon.
What was the ethnicity of early Texas cowboys? http://t.co/e6n3S9mKsY it was these independent, self-sufficient, mobile ranch hands w…
— Kathy E Gill (@kegill) September 3, 2013
Then there was the stereotypes:
“@JPLman95: Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11.” At a Arab store near you ????????????
— its cookay!!! (@cookiejoshcook) September 16, 2013
I was alerted to the misplaced angst over her win via this tweet and screen capture:
— Asher Madan (@ashermadan) September 16, 2013
A not-so-subtle reminder that unless you are Native American, your family of origin came here as an immigrant. (Heck, Native Americans may have come from elsewhere as well.)
she can't be Indian but the past Miss America's can be dutch, german, polish, so on and so forth?
— poussé. (@eleven8) September 16, 2013
Our demographics continue to change. Less than half of the babies born in 2012 were Caucasian. Demographers project that in 30 years, Caucasians will be a minority.
As I checked out the news coverage, I thought I detected a wide variance in skin tone in her pictures. One image, in particular, seemed to be an outlier. So I began comparing, pulling a light and dark sample from each image.
I was unhappy to learn that my first impressions were correct.
Of the 10 photos that I analyzed, one is clearly darker than the norm and two appear to have been modified by the publisher.
The photo that shows her with the darkest skin is an aberration in this sample. Taken by Mel Evans and distributed by AP, here is an example from USA Today:
In addition, one AP photo appears drastically different on the FOX Alabama web site when compared with the New Indian Express. Same photographer, same photo.
Another photo taken earlier in the competition by Donald Kravitz, a Getty Images photographer, show Davuluris wearing a green dress. The darker image ran on the NY Daily News website; the lighter image ran on E!. Given that the photo distributed by AP is the same in both publications, it seems as though the difference lies there. Might E! have touched up the photo because it’s an entertainment site? Might the NY Daily News have darkened the photo?
This kind of manipulation would be bad form any time. But given the state of US-Middle Eastern relations today, enhancing a brown person’s skin tone is like tossing raw meat to a bunch of hyenas.
If these modifications were deliberate, then they appear to be a violation of journalistic ethics, at least as outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Photographers Association.
And that would make them worse than the slurs on Twitter and Facebook, because (a) news media set public opinion, (b) images pack an emotional punch and (3) mass media reach far more people, domestically and abroad, than individuals on social networks. Technology has driven the cost of production way down but it’s still expensive (time, energy, advertising) to get attention.