Culture 22 January 2018
“So Miss America, can you cook?"
“Oh honey, why you readin' The Economist? That's a man's world."
“You graduated from University of Michigan? So you're actually smart?"
The person inquiring about my culinary skills?
An older Indian man, who asked me this right after I had the honor of hosting a reception & introducing the Indian Prime Minister Modi at a sold out crowd in Madison Square Garden.
And the one concerned about my literary capacity?
A seemingly friendly southern man who was sitting next to me on a flight to Boston when I was on my way to give a keynote address at Harvard.
The woman surprised by my degree?
She approached me immediately after I finished a speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya about my work on social entrepreneurship.
As Miss America 2014, I've heard my fair share of sexist comments. Never mind that in the past three years since I've been crowned, I've spoken at almost 45 different universities including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale; had my advocacy work recognized by President Obama and was invited to collaborate with the First Lady on her campaign, “Let's Move"; and embarked on a 14-day tour in India sponsored by the U.S. Department of State—promoting education, women's empowerment, and diversity.
To top it off, I co-produced and hosted a reality television series, “Made in America," a show that empowers young South Asian women. But this isn't just a Miss America problem. In light of this past year's #MeToo & #TimesUp movements, it's finally dawned upon society how dark & pervasive sexist behavior is ingrained across all industries and cultures.
So regardless of my achievements in a professional setting (and the unseen amounts of hard work and perseverance that went into them), why am I being reduced to archaic notions of gender roles and stereotypes?
Some might argue it's because of the Miss America organization and the sexist stereotype that plagues pageants and the swimsuit competition. It's no secret that the swimsuit competition has undergone much scrutiny and criticism over the organizations history. And to be honest, it was far from my best friend. I struggled being overweight as a child and constantly had issues with my body image. It took me three times to even win a local title in the organization and almost threw in the towel because of my personal struggle. I've talked openly about overcoming my eating disorder, and my transformative fifty pound weight loss journey to health and fitness. However, the most significant part of this journey was discovering a feeling I had never had before; a feeling of mental clarity and focus. It gave me a sense of discipline and strength that was reflective across all facets of my life. I never imagined I would be crushing daily crossfit workouts and become fluent in acronyms like AMRAPs and EMOMs, but my goodness there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride when you know you've pushed past your self imposed limitations.
"So regardless of my achievements in a professional setting (and the unseen amounts of hard work and perseverance that went into them), why am I being reduced to archaic notions of gender roles and stereotypes?"
That being said, let's imagine a scenario in which there was no Miss America pageant or swimsuit competition. Would the people quoted in the beginning still have asked about my culinary skills or imply that I can't possibly understand what was written in The Economist? To me, the answer is a stark “YES."
The underlying issue isn't about a swimsuit competition or being Miss America, it's the sexism and gender roles we face as women, regardless of whether we've ever been involved with pageants or not. Just like the time when my badass surgeon sister (with no history of competing in Miss America) finished operating on a patient and went to inform the family upon successful completion of the procedure. Immediately upon seeing her, they assumed she was the nurse, subsequently called her “sweetie" and asked when they could speak with the doctor. As women, we know hundreds and thousands of instances like this.
One of the largest issues surrounding the Miss America Organization is that many people still view the organization solely as “beauty not brains." In all fairness, I can understand how the messaging and brand of Miss America has been lost through the many years. After the recent & appalling email scandal within the Miss America organization, the women who have the highest stake in this organization did what we do best: communicate, organize, and take action. As former Miss America's, we were deeply concerned about the future of the organization. By collectively electing Gretchen Carlson as chairwoman of the board, it's safe to say that we are entering an optimistic era of leadership for the future of the organization. For the first time ever in the organizations history, we have female representation in the chairman position. And with a powerful group of women leading us into this pivotal and revitalizing moment, I trust we will successfully shift the perception that we're “just a beauty pageant" and truly showcase the narrative that has always been woven into the fabric of who Miss America is.
The thousands of women who have been involved in the program have earned scholarship monies to further their education. They have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, hosts, news anchors, CEOs, engineers, PhDs, Broadway performers, political servants, and so much more.
For too long the women and men who believe in this iconic program, many of whom are volunteers, have defended the organization as relevant and empowering. When in fact, we are part of the feminist movement in our own right. Breaking stereotypes has been embedded in our history. Our young women have represented various cultures, races, religion, ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, and communities. We advocate for ourselves, our platforms, and the constituents we represent.
We have stood together in solidarity for the rights of our sisters and the organization. This is empowerment at its core. Our voices are being heard. We are relevant. We are creators, groundbreakers and role models--past, present, and future.
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.