For Miss Plymouth County, a beauty pageant is a platform on which one should advocate, as well as inspire. Last week, Maude Gorman, a Miss Massachusetts contestant, returned her crown to protest a #MeToo joke that was made at the expense of sexual assault survivors.
During the final round of the Miss Massachusetts competition on June 30, two hosts of the pageant put on a skit lamenting the end of the Miss America Organization's swimsuit competition. "We may have very well seen the last ever swimsuit competition on stage," says a female host, kneeling on stage. "It’s very upsetting. And I’m trying to understand, God, why it happened."
Across the stage, a man dressed in white robes, presumably playing God, holds up a #MeToo sign and replies, "Me, too." The crowd cheers at the joke, and the sketch continues.
Gorman, an outspoken advocate against sexual assault who says she was gang-raped at age 13, was backstage during the performance. "To see this happen, to hear this backstage, my gut dropped," she told NBC Boston in an interview. "I was heartbroken, and I just knew I could not just stand by and let this happen."
Miss Massachusetts posted an apology to their Facebook page, saying they had not known about the skit but planned to review all content in the future. Gorman told NBC that the pageant organization's response was not enough, and that she felt it necessary to speak up by resigning as Miss Plymouth County. “It was making fun of sexual assault survivors and their courage to come forward, and that is despicable," she said.
In 2015, Gorman represented Massachusetts in the Miss America World pageant, where she used her platform to talk about her own experience with sexual assault and to speak out against victim blaming. During a three-minute speech on the pageant stage, Gorman talked about living through years of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts after she was raped. She experienced severe PTSD and dropped out of several high schools.
After three-and-a-half years of silence, she said she reached out to her family for help. With the aid of therapy and antidepressants, she told The Boston Globe, she graduated from an online high school and began her pageant career to help improve her self-confidence. Around the same time, Gorman began advocating for sexual assault survivors with a rape crisis organization called the Center for Hope and Healing.
Chairwoman of the Miss America Organization (MAO), Gretchen Carlson, is also an advocate against sexual assault, and an early proponent of the #MeToo movement. On June 5, Carlson announced that the Miss America pageant will drop the traditional swimsuit competition and will no longer be judging contestants on physical appearance. However, since her announcement, The Wall Street Journal reported that almost half of the MAO board has quit or been forced to resign due to rifts over the decision, and that Carlson herself is being pressured to step down by state pageant leaders.
In 2016, Carlson was among several women to sue Fox News over sexual harassment allegations against Fox's former CEO Roger Ailes, who denied all the claims against him. She eventually settled for $20 million, but her public fight against a culture of sexism continued when she exposed years of internal MAO emails among male executives that disparaged past Miss Americas, discussing things like sex lives, weight gain, and intellect. In the wake of the scandal, Carlson rose to MAO chairwomanship, and was joined by the organization's first all-female team.
Like Carlson, for Gorman, female empowerment through the #MeToo movement has had a significant impact on her career, though Gorman is choosing to distance herself from the concept of beauty pageants. "I don’t even really want to have a local title anymore after seeing something like that," she told the Observer. "Personally, I can’t see myself being a part of the Miss America organization."