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Posted by on Sep 16, 2013 in Featured, Media | 15 comments

The Miss America contest, origin myths and visual triggers

Official photo Nina DavuluriOfficial photo Nina DavuluriA 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:

Todd Starnes Tweet

Never mind that the first Europeans to settle in the Americas were Spanish. Before the Mayflower (not blonde-haired folks either).

Or that there is no such thing as “American values” that everyone in the country has ever agreed upon.

Then there was the stereotypes:

I was alerted to the misplaced angst over her win via this tweet and screen capture:

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.)

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.

Skin tone comparison Miss America

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:

Miss America

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.

Mel Evans, AP



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?

David Kravitz, Getty



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.

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  • rudi

    Miss Amerika and Jesus were blue eyed blonds before Liebrul took over!!
    Let these idiots secede with Rick Perry.

  • roro80

    I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that racists don’t make any sense, but a lot of these comments just defy all logic.

    I mean, what does the Todd Starnes quote even mean? Is he actually saying that Miss America — a beauty pageant for goodness’ sake — is part of the vast liberal conspiracy run by Obama and Hitler to elect a brown woman to Hot Lady in Chief? Not just in spite of a gun-toting “Chinese”-speaking (…Mandarin, perhaps? Cantonese?) blond Army person being in the running (who, by the way, seems also to be a good candidate and probably a lovely woman herself), but because Miss Kansas represents “American values”?

    And of course, Miss New York is not “Arab”, and given her last name, I would guess her family’s background is Hindu and not Muslim. Crucially: not that being either Arab or Muslim in background should disqualify her. (I saw “in background” because in general devout Muslim women do not go on stage in bikinis.)

  • LOL – yes, Rudi. Don’t laugh but I’m going to guess that many don’t realize that Jesus was a Jew.

    Roro80 – this weekend has been one of logic defied, IMO. From the “water” controversy to the public meeting I attended Saturday to this. She is Indian, not Arabic – I’ve not seen anything about her religion that is trusted source.

    Of course, I’m more concerned with the photos.

  • JSpencer

    Well done Kathy. The good fight is the one against ignorance and hate.

    a bunch of hyenas

    A generous characterization to be sure.

  • Thank you, JSpencer!

  • StockBoyLA

    “Or that there is no such thing as “American values” that everyone in the country has ever agreed upon.”

    As someone who is blond with blue eyes and whose ancestors were part of the original colonists… I have to say my American values include the welcoming of immigrants. I think we should all applaud immigrants and their American born children and grandchildren, particularly when they work hard and contribute to society, as Nina seems to want to do in her pursuit of being a doctor.

    I think I have a bigger tent idea of what it means to be an American than many people. However one value that I don’t believe is very American is royalty and the belief that you are entitled to something solely because of your family or your looks.

    I think Nina is an excellent example of American values and is a real beauty, too! We should all be proud of having a talented, beautiful Miss America. She (and the other contestants) all deserve a round of applause for their hard work and efforts. I believe that they all, each in their own way, embody some aspect of what it means to be American and any one of them would be a good choice as Miss America.

  • sheknows

    Thanks Kathy. Sometimes you just have to be ashamed to be an American. You were generous with hyenas. I would said jackals.

    If these dimwits are truly looking for Miss America, she had better be Native American.

  • Hi, StockBoyLA — thanks for your comments and sharing your beliefs. Of course, immigrants have not always been welcomed, even though most of us (unless we are Native American) got here because or an ancestor immigrated. My family is DAR on my mom’s side — and we think my dad’s is, too. (Cheers for Scot-Irish poor folks!)

    And I agree with your lovely closing graph. May I quote you? 🙂

    Ah, SheKnows … if jackals had popped into my head, I would have gone with it. I usually take the word my subconscious coughs up. That was an allegory that I struggled with though …I didn’t want to use “war” stuff and then hyenas popped into my mind. 🙂

  • roro80

    “Water” controversy? I don’t believe I know about that one. I’m almost afraid to ask…

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Many “native American” tribal groups also immigrated and also migrated. There’s an entire group of African people who were dragged here against their wills long ago. I dont know if they can be said to be any of the above, not migrants, nor immigrants.

    To me, the boundaries of nations confuses what is ‘immigration and migration’ as well as lands that had no governing blanket laws concerning ‘citizenship’ over vast lands of miles and miles. The idea of immigrant/ heritage/migrant, etc, is a ‘modern’ idea, and I think an opinion about who/what is what, depending on who is looking and through whichever lens. {just today thinking about family and friends who were once Mexicans and suddenly in usa takeover, were not only suddenly in usa, but were citizens of neither country, and their landgrants, farm and ranch ownership voided by the us gov’t just on one gov’t;s say so]

    Just my .02 on another subject. If Miss “america” is a nice person that’d be great. But I also question prizes for ‘the best of livestock’ amongst humans, no matter what their heritage. I do. I doubt the money involved, the huge moneymaking aspects of this show and others like-kind, are seeking nice people. Just my .02 I dont buy the ‘scholarship if you strip down and prance’ angle either. Dont buy that swimsuit and evening gown [what century are we living in anyway–evening gowns?? what caste does that belong to?] is in any way a predictor of or proof of anything. If one were to measure a woman who is exceptional, I’d want to see brains, true musical talent, huge athletic ability, intelligent repartee, true humanitarian service immersion. But then, most women have three of the five without even half trying. The athletic and the music, if one isnt born with them, would need practice. lol

  • Ah, roro80 … this Politico story in USA Today provides the broad brush. It’s a horribly produced piece of work, IMO, but that’s another story. (I hate he said/she said journalism.)

  • Dr E – I was hoping you’d chime in. 🙂

    I’m not a fan of the beauty contests either — and it certainly seems exploitive (women as objects). At least she seemed to break the mold a bit and have something between her ears other than cotton candy.

    I’m more upset with media than with “normal people who should know better.”

  • ShannonLeee

    According to my hometown paper, the KC Star, Miss Kansas lost because she can’t sing. Apparently the contest would not let her shoot her bow as a talent 😉

    I’d love to see a Miss Alternative America contest…. And a Mr.

    Let people compete with uniqueness. Not a cookie cutter idea of beauty and behavior.

  • roro80

    Thanks for the link, Kathy. Clearly, part of the idea of water leading to better health and feeling better overall is the idea of replacing a different liquid (soda, coffee, juice, etc) with water when one is thirsty; it seems like those criticizing the campaign are missing that.

    As for beauty pageants in general, I don’t think they’re an unmitigated good, certainly, but I also have a difficult time getting too upset at them most of the time. It should also be noted that some programs are more problematic than others, the Miss America path being quite a bit better (in my opinion) than, say, Miss USA, and others like America’s Junior Miss being better than either. I may have mentioned it before on TMV at some point, but I did used to do pageants, and they are not as easy and mindless as they might seem. For sure some of them just judge on who has the rocking-est body and cutest nose, but even those require particular skill sets and stage presence. Most require an interview and a talent, all require stage presence and poise, and some even chuck the swimsuit competition for a fitness program and have an academic portion. I mean, we have all sorts of stupid competitions on all sorts of things in this country, and it strikes me as a little problematic to say that this particular type of skill is the one out of all them that is useless or silly. Much more disturbing in my mind is the national passtime of watching sound bites of the “stupid” things that pageant competitors say and using a poor answer as collective proof that attractive women are stupid.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    i thought you wrote a good story, well put Kathy. It’s a phenom of our time, and an industry before it is anything else… and also a huge employer of people. Lots of jobs. Serious.

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