Miss America

Karen Haas

Inundated as we’ve been over the course of the last few weeks with images of American Olympic athletes draped in flags, and specifically with news of controversy surrounding transgendered Olympians and intersex athletes at the Rio Games, this seems an ideal moment to revisit Lyle Ashton Harris’s photograph, Miss America. Made nearly three decades ago as part of the “Americas” series, this powerful image speaks to many of the same political issues of gender, identity, race, and nationalism that resonate with us today. The shorthaired figure is wearing only an American flag and heavily powdered “white face.” The photographer, himself a gay African American man, here presents his model—her eyes closed and her distinctive features blurred by a long exposure—transformed into a Punu-type mask like those from Gabon, Cameroon, and the Congo. It is interesting to realize that tribal masks like these were traditionally worn by men but meant to represent female ancestors. As much as this gender-bending nude figure speaks to more ancient traditions and our contemporary moment, it also specifically relates to 1980s pop culture: Vanessa Williams, crowned the first black Miss America in 1983, had to give up her prize in 1984 when a men’s magazine printed unauthorized nude photos of her. Just last September—over 30 years later—she finally received a formal apology from the organization that forced her to resign.

How far have we come as a society 30 years later on issues of nudity, gender ideals, and what the American flag represents? As televised athletics remain an essential forum to protest racial injustice and promote awareness of issues such as #BlackLivesMatter, is the American flag taking on new meaning?

Update October 21, 2016 4:24 pm

Among the 650 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here is a highlight:

sweethaven_gallery This is a very beautiful and powerful image. Thanks for the insightful commentary Ms. Hass, you've enriched my day!

Karen Haas is the Lane Senior Curator of Photographs.