Last night, Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss American 2014. Nina was the first Indian-American Miss New York and is now the first Indian American to hold the Miss America title … which means all the racists came out to Tweet their displeasure. You can visit Buzzfeed for a nice assortment of tweets ranging from people calling her “miss 7-11,” a member of the Al Qaeda, a terrorist, or otherwise implying that she isn’t American. Other tweeters simply resorted to talking about Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, a white, blonde woman who is a member of the armed forces.
Nina, in fact, was born and raised in the United States (although the Miss America pageant only requires contestants to be American citizens, not necessarily American born). Her parents immigrated to the United States from India about 30 years ago. Nina’s background is very similar to my own and many of my friends. So while Twitter was awash in racism, my facebook feed was full of people celebrating this win and the ways in which it validates our identities as Americans. In some ways, I agree with them.
Like most of my female friends and I, Nina has been trained in classical Indian dance, specifically bharatnatyam and kuchupudi. Nina’s talent was performing a Bollywood fusion dance, mixing classical dance with the more entertainment-focused style of Bollywood. The presentation of Bollywood on a mainstream American stage has always felt limited to artists like the Pussycat Dolls and Selena Gomez, who exoticize Indian media and culture. Yet, last night, a brown-skinned girl dressed in a lengha danced to a Hindi song in a pageant that rewards conformity and normativity. And she won. She was labeled American.
Nina’s success is important to me and important to many of my friends because we rarely see strong role models who look like us. In fact, I remember watching the Miss America pageant as a 13-year-old and thinking that I could never be Miss America because I wasn’t a skinny white girl who did ballet. And yet, in every other way, Nina is exactly what Miss America seeks. She embodies the kind of beauty that is rewarded in our culture. In fact, she has struggled with eating disorders in the past and lost more than 50 pounds to compete in pageants. According to some sources, she has even been overheard criticizing the current Miss America’s weight. For Nina to even compete in Miss America she had to buy into a competition that is drenched in patriarchy and white supremacy.
The Miss America pageant started out as a way to extend summer tourism of Atlantic City by just one more weekend. At the beginning, it was little more than a group of beautiful women parading around. The bulk of the final score came from the swimsuit component. Since then, it has evolved into a scholarship competition. Miss America is now the group that gives out the largest number of scholarships to women and girls around the world. While this can be seen as a positive, it also seems to send a message that the best way to get a scholarship is to have a flat stomach, not to mention have enough money to compete in a pageant in the first place.
Nina also wasn’t the only Indian-American woman on the Miss America stage. Bindhu Pamarthi, Miss District of Colombia, also competed in the national pageant. Her talent was also Bollywood dance. I applaud both these women for the courage it takes to be the “foreign” girl in a mostly white competition. I am grateful for the validation I feel when they are labeled American women. I never thought an Indian-American woman could be Miss America. But a few beautiful women participating in a pageant doesn’t validate my everyday existence. I will still be stared at for wearing a lengha in public. I will still be shamed for my weight. I will still experience the kind of ignorance of which Nina speaks. I will still be exoticized. Nina and Bindhu are rewarded for the ways in which they conform. Their Bollywood dances are accepted in this post-Jai Ho era. And I can’t help but have mixed emotions about all of it.
I would love to stand on a stage in a lengha and be told I am still an American woman, but I would much rather see the patriarchy crash and burn and take down all beauty pageants with it.
Written by Mansi Kathuria
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