The Miss America pageant is famous for asking its finalists to address tough issues as part of the infamous question portion of the competition. Unfortunately on Sunday night, one competition judge proved just how far America still has to go when it comes to talking productively about domestic abuse in this country.
As part of the portion, 2014 Miss America judge Kathy Ireland was slated to ask Miss Florida about domestic violence, namely the recent scandal involving NFL star Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée, Janay Rice. While the topic of domestic violence is certainly something the pageant should be discussing, Ireland chose to go about it in precisely the wrong way.
The scandal with Rice has taken over national headlines this past week, after footage of the former Baltimore Raven assaulting his wife in an elevator was released by TMZ. In the midst of the uproar, Janay has publicly chosen to stay with her husband. And thus Ireland's question to Miss Florida:
"As a woman, what do you think of her decision?"
Miss Florida's answer, to her credit, included a clear condemnation of Ray Rice's actions, saying, "I don’t think that he deserves a second chance." But she also couldn't help but walk right into the trap laid by such a poorly-conceived question: judging Janay Rice.
As Twitter was keen to notice, Ireland's question reeked of victim-blaming.
The biggest, most pressing problem with the Ray Rice incident was not Janay's decision to stay, but rather her partner's decision to beat her in the first place. Shaming Janay for her decision does nothing to tackle the issue of domestic violence or examine the systemic problems and inequalities that have allowed it to fester. As Chai Jindasurat, coordinator at the Anti-Violence Project, told ThinkProgress, "When we solely focus on whether a survivor stays with or leaves their abusive partner, we place all the responsibility on the survivor rather than holding an abusive partner accountable."
Moreover, as the women of the powerful #WhyIStayed hashtag know all too well, no one is in a position to judge any victim's decision in such a complex situation.
To the pageant's great detriment, that's exactly what Ireland, and the Miss America organizers who undoubtedly vetted the question, asked Miss Florida to do. And in doing so, they missed a major opportunity to ask the right questions about domestic violence.
This #MissAmerica question about Ray Rice pits women against women instead of addressing the real issue of domestic abuse.— Lauren Fox (@FoxReports) September 15, 2014
Did they REALLY just ask if it was ok that Janay Palmer stood by Ray Rice? THAT'S the ? you decide to ask about that situation? #MissAmerica— Anna Hensel (@AnnaHensel43) September 15, 2014
So #MissAmerica is going to casually shame Ray Rice's wife for staying with her husband on national TV? Really?— Alana (@AlanaVincenza) September 15, 2014
The way Ray Rice question was posed was not about domestic violence, but rather, blaming women. SO MUCH FOR WOMEN EMPOWERMENT, #MissAmerica— Aly Walansky (@alywalansky) September 15, 2014
Asking what you think about "Janay Rice's decision" is out of line. Fear of that very kind of judgement is often why women stay #MissAmerica— Kristen (@swkkristen) September 15, 2014
UPDATE: The newly-crowned Miss America, Kira Kazantsev of New York, told NPR in an interview a day after the ceremony that questioning Janay Rice's decision to stay with Ray Rice isn't productive. As someone who endured an abusive relationship herself, Kazantsev said, "I want people to stop asking, 'Why doesn't she just leave?' Every woman is an expert in her own case, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that lead to a woman staying with her abuser."
She did not commment specifically on the question given to Miss Florida during the Miss America competition.