Beauty pageants have been targets of feminist criticism since their creation. (And who can blame us?) In response to this pushback, many pageants have begun emphasizing their scholarship programs. Miss America claims to be “the largest scholarship program in the world for women.”
But here’s the kicker: They actually are. Watch John Oliver explain in this video.
Click for the Transcript
JOHN OLIVER: Last Sunday, one of the weirdest annual events on television took place yet again.
MALE SPEAKER: Get ready for the lip gloss, the spray tans, the blood, sweat, and sequins.
PAGEANT CONTESTANT: I’m pumped up!
MALE SPEAKER: Ladies and gentlemen, the 2015 Miss America semi-finalists. Beautiful.
JOHN: Beautiful! And just as a reminder for those of you at home, it is the year 2014 and I am a fully clothed man standing in front of a line of women in swimsuits awaiting judgment. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Yes. Last Sunday was the Miss America Pageant, and through it all, the swimsuits, the dance numbers, the inexplicable ventriloquism, it was very difficult not to think “How the fuck is this still happening?” Beauty pageants haven’t really made sense since an era when people talked like this.
MALE SPEAKER: Girls, girls, girls, every one lovely and talented, one from nearly every state in the union including Alaska.
JOHN: Oh. Including Alaska. Yes. You know why they mentioned that? Because Alaska had only just become a state back then. In fact, in the early days it made sense to have a contest with criteria like this.
MALE SPEAKER: The very first years, there was a literal breakdown. Five points for the construction of the head, five points for the limbs, three points for the torso, two points for the legs…
JOHN: Three points for the torso. I think even back then that was code. “Hey, I met this great dame. See? She’s got a great torso. See? 34D torso. You should meet her.” “How’s the construction of her head?” “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.” But the only time that beauty pageants are relevant nowadays is whenever someone forwards you a link to something like this.
PAGEANT CONTESTANT: I believe that our education like such as South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should… our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries.
JOHN: Now, to be fair, the question she was asked was “Can you do an impression of a dictionary in the washing machine?” And I think everyone can agree that she nailed that. She nailed that. Look, it is easy to make fun of pageant contestants, but which is really crazier, that they sometimes give stupid answers or that they are almost always asked ridiculously complex questions?
WENDIE MALICK: Government tracking of phone records has been in the news lately. Is this an invasion of privacy or necessary to keep our country safe? Why or why not?
CHRISTINA MILIAN: Should people who leak classified documents in the name of public information be charged with treason?
IAN ZIERING: In recent weeks, the U.S. has released five detainees from Guantanamo in exchange for one U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan. U.S. policy is to leave no soldier behind. Do you think it’s fair to sacrifice or swap lives in order to uphold this policy?
JOHN: What? I totally agree with the guy in the background there, because I sincerely doubt the intricacies of hostage exchanges are going to be resolved by a 21-year old P.R. major and the star of Sharknado. In fact, last Sunday this was an actual question.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The savagery of the ISIS threat to our security was demonstrated by the gruesome videos of two journalists and an aid worker being beheaded. What should our country’s response be?
JOHN: That’s right. They asked one of the contestants to solve ISIS, and she only had 20 seconds to do it. How did she do?
PAGEANT CONTESTANT: This is an absolute outrage and something definitely needs to be done, but I don’t think America needs to be the only one to do it. I really think it’s important for the world, for the U.N. to come together and decide what’s the best thing united that we can do to really come together as a bigger and more impactful source to end this horrid, horrid thing that’s happening.
JOHN: Holy shit! That is a much better answer than I could have done in that amount of time! That is a borderline better answer than the president gave last week.
In fact, many of last Sunday’s contestants were genuinely impressive, and the Miss America Pageant would argue that’s because they’re a classier organization than their competitors, which is frankly not difficult. Miss U.S.A. for instance is owned by Donald Trump, a clown made of mummified foreskin and cotton candy. And look, he’s pretty blunt about his criteria.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, obviously it’s created out of beauty. I mean, we could say politically correct that the look doesn’t matter, but the look obviously matters. Like you wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t beautiful.
JOHN: It is a little ironic that the Miss U.S.A. beauty pageant is overseen by one of the ugliest souls on the planet. But look, Miss America is supposed to be different from all that. Miss America is about something more than just looks.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This is a scholarship pageant, Lee.
MALE SPEAKER: Miss America funds scholars.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s the largest scholarship program in the world for women.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s easy to think that this is just a beauty pageant, but this is a scholarship pageant, Miss America is.
JOHN: Right. Yeah, right. You need to see them in bathing suits because as we all know, the intelligence portion of the brain is located somewhere on the upper thigh. In fact, Miss America trades on their scholarship claims so much. If you call the Miss America headquarters, this is what you hear.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Thank you for calling the Miss America Organization, the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.
JOHN: Okay, that is suspiciously defensive right out of the gate. That is like Walter White saying “Hello and welcome to this regular carwash that’s definitely not laundering money from our meth lab. Welcome.” If it is actually true that Miss America is the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women, that’s a little bit weird, because Miss America does not offer scholarships to all women, only those who compete in its pageants.
So to quality for a scholarship, you’ll need to certify not just that you’ve never been married, but also that you are not now pregnant and never have been, which of course makes sense. Miss America is supposed to be a role model for children. How can she be that if she’s got a child in tow who’s constantly looking up to her?
Those are just the official rules you need to abide by. If you want a shot at winning one of their scholarships, you’re also going to need access to a can of this stuff.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Butt glue, a spray adhesive essential for keeping those bikini bottoms on their bottoms.
JOHN: Just think about that for a second. “How did the scholarship interview go?” “Well, my ass is still sticky. I think I got it. I think I got it!” Miss America doesn’t just say it’s the biggest scholarship organization. It backs this up with numbers.
FEMALE SPEAKER: We’re the nation’s largest scholarship program for young women with 45 million dollars made available annually.
JOHN: Forty five million. That is an unbelievable amount of money, as in I literally didn’t believe that. It’s the kind of number that can get stuck in your head and rattle around there for days driving you crazy, making you wish for instance there was a way to find out more.
MALE SPEAKER: Find out more at missamericafoundation.org.
JOHN: And that is where all this craziness began. We went to their website and, to be honest, it wasn’t a great sign that their About Us page says “We Fun Scholars!” You really might want to butt-glue a ‘D’ onto the end of that word.
But it was then while digging around on their site that we discovered that Miss America and its foundation are registered nonprofits, which means they have to file public tax forms. So what we were looking for was that crazy number, 45 million dollars. What we found instead was that in 2012, at the national level they spent less than $500,000 in cash scholarships, leaving us a mere 44 and a half million dollars short of what they say they provide.
And at this point, we really had a clear choice. We could have just thought “Sure, the numbers don’t really add up, but it’s only Miss America, who really gives a shit,” or we could try to pull the tax forms from every state level competition in the country because this was starting to drive us fucking insane. It’s been a weird week here.
We got 33 states’ 990 forms and attempted to contact everyone else, but even making the most generous assumptions for every state and local pageant that we didn’t get, we couldn’t get even close to four million dollars, when remember, they are claiming this.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Forty five million dollars made available annually.
JOHN: How the fuck is that possible? How is that possible? At this point, we were in way too deep so we just called Miss America, which is when we first heard this.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Thank you for calling the Miss America Organization, the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.
JOHN: It turns out the key word there is provider. Some schools offer scholarships directly to pageant contestants, and the trick is Miss America counts all of them, not just the ones they can physically take.
So for instance, Miss Pennsylvania’s website says it offers the winner scholarships to these four colleges, and the value of every single scholarship is counted together despite the fact that she is clearly going to attend at most one because she’s not going to attend four colleges. She’s not James fucking Franco.
Furthermore, Miss Alabama in its 2012 filing said it provided nearly 2.6 million dollars in scholarships to just one school, Troy University, which blew my mind because if that’s true, that must be the single prettiest school anywhere in America. But when we contacted Troy, it turns out the pageants got to that 2.6 million dollars by multiplying the value of a single scholarship by 48, the number of competitors who could theoretically accept it, even though the actual number of contestants who accepted the scholarship that year was – and you are not going to believe this – zero. Absolute zero! Meaning that the difference between the money they provided and the money they awarded was all of the money they provided.
At this point, we just had to stop because it was 35 minutes ago and we had to tape this show. But it does seem that two things are true. One, Miss America gives out way less than 45 million dollars in scholarships and yet two, whatever the number is, one thing does still seem to be troublingly true.
KELI KRYFKO: The Miss America Organization is actually the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world.
JOHN: Yeah, because even their lowest number is more than any other women-only scholarship that we could find: more than the Society of Women Engineers whose website is here, more than the Patsy Mink Foundation here, and more than the Jeanette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund here, all of which you can donate to if you want to change the fact that currently the biggest scholarship program exclusively for women in America requires you to be unmarried with a mint condition uterus and also rewards working knowledge of buttock adhesive technology, which is just a little bit unsettling.
In fact, let me try to explain why to the Miss America Organization through the only medium it seems to value, 20-second conversations with women in evening dresses and sashes. Please join me.
Welcome to Miss Last Week Tonight. I’m proud to say, as of now, we are the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women because tonight 400 million one-dollar scholarships will be made available to the winner of which you may choose just one. So let’s bring out our first contestant, Miss First Contestant.
Radiant. Question number one. What does the continued existence of the Miss America Pageant say about how women are viewed in America? You have 20 seconds. Go.
FIRST CONTESTANT: Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 that spurred first wave feminism, the perception of women in America has always been complex and fluid. While it is theoretically possible that Miss America could evolve into a purely academic scholarship organization, at this point in time the notion that beauty pageants are about anything other than outer beauty is belied both by the continued existence of the swimsuit portion and the fact that I’m expected to answer this question in just 20 seconds. Thank you very much.
JOHN: That’s tremendous. Beautiful. And now, please welcome our final contender, Miss Kathy Griffin. Miss Kathy, your question. When providing access to scholarships, is there any place whatsoever for the judgment of a woman’s body?
KATHY GRIFFIN: Oh, I have no problem with that at all.
JOHN: Wait. Really?
KATHY: Nope. No problem whatsoever, as long as men are subjected to the same demeaning process. Let me show you what I mean. Giuseppe, get out here.
JOHN: No, no, no. No, no, no. Oh, shit. Okay. All right. What exactly are you doing here?
KATHY: All right. I am judging you as a host next to him.
JOHN: Oh. Well…
KATHY: All right, John. Walk that runway! Give us a twirl.
JOHN: Shit. It’s just… Hosting is about a lot more than looks, Kathy. It’s about just… No. Don’t do that with your hands. It’s not just about looks, Kathy.
KATHY: Well, look, that’s only 20% of your total score. Now, I’m giving this one to Giuseppe because frankly he wins on muscle mass, legs, and of course, construction of the head.
JOHN: Okay. Okay. I get your point.
KATHY: No. Let me explain why I’m giving you a lower score. I look at Giuseppe and I want to have sex with him. I look at you and I want to have sex with Giuseppe.
JOHN: Oh. Come on, Kathy. I’m a good person, Kathy.
KATHY: You know what? I am calling it. Giuseppe wins.
JOHN: No! No way Giuseppe wins! No. Get off me, Giuseppe! I’m not happy for you! I’m not happy for you. I feel terrible about myself. Pageants are horrible! They’re horrible.
That’s our show. No thanks to Kathy Griffin! No thanks to Kathy Griffin! Fuck you, Giuseppe! I feel bad about myself!
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