Well, there goes Western civilization.
As if our popular culture weren't already sufficiently degraded, the Miss America Pageant has decided to scrap the contestant talent segments in this year's telecast. Where, oh where, will the next generation of baton-twirling artistes come from?
The pageant is acting under pressure from ABC-TV, which is continuing the medium's decades-long quest for the lowest common dominator.
The Miss America Pageant may be one of the nation's totemistic events, the highest expression of the "look but don't touch" rule in naked-dancing bars, but just as we neglect our national parks and historic landmarks, we've grown negligent toward the pageant. Its impression is so faint these days that the pageant doesn't even blip feminism's outrage alert.
Last year's show drew the pageant's lowest ratings ever and, hoping to punch up the audience -- or at least to limit the damage -- ABC is cutting its coverage this year to just two hours. If you are keeping track, that means that the network has downgraded Miss America in importance to a level only twice the time allotted each night to the national political party conventions.
Which does seem about right, when you think about it. The conventions don't have ballgown or, more crucially, swimsuit contests and so offer very little reason for anyone to pay attention.
Miss America at least will keep those traditions afloat, and the young women will continue to be invited to the spotlight to declare themselves as favoring the eventual cure, and the sooner the better, of dreadful diseases and to express their always moving hopes for world peas.
But let's face it, as inspiring as those testimonies always are, most of us tune in for the talent section.
Some contestants even twirl flaming batons. One rode a horse around on the stage. Some recite their very own poetry; others give moving readings of patriotic texts. Over the years we have seen the young women jump up -- and down! -- on trampolines, tap dance, drive a tractor quite skillfully, walk on broken glass.
And, mind you, all of this without taxpayer support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
One year, a contestant shot arrows at balloons about, oh, maybe an arrow's length away. She still managed to miss some, but no matter. It's the effort that counts and, anyway, she didn't go on to work in our ICBM program, so no harm done.
With no hope now of ever again reaching such cultural high points, we are left just with the nostalgic afterglow of acts like Mary Ann Mobley's in 1959 when she opened with an operatic aria, then switched to "There'll Be Some Changes Made" as she stripped down to a skimpy outfit. (Seeing where that could go, pageant officials thereafter banned striptease as an approved talent.)
To lament the loss of the talent contest, however, is not to denigrate the impressive achievement of the pageant officials in scrapping the segments. They have achieved what many of us would have thought would be impossible. They have managed to dumb down the Miss America show.
© 2004 Star Tribune