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American Annals of the Deaf

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Women and Deafness: Double Visions

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Beauty pageants presented a public venue to assert deaf worthiness, deaf normalcy. Deaf contestants allowed themselves to be inspected, judged, and admired. This process assumed—implicitly and explicitly—that finalists and winners were the most worthy, the most “perfect” in their normalcy. The structure of these contests reveals both a close alignment with mainstream rituals and complex Deaf cultural expectations for women. Early contests, usually sponsored by local clubs, copied the patterns that prevailed in mainstream society, which highlighted a mixture of fashion modeling, walking, posing, and responding to questions. Various Deaf associations joined together to sponsor larger beauty contests by the 1930s, but a national program occurred roughly forty years later. Proposed by Douglas Burke in 1966, the Miss Deaf America pageant grew from the Cultural Program of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). As one official website explains:

There was one aspect of the arts that had yet to be explored—the world of drama. Dr. Burke visualized the need of a “way to recognize deaf actresses at an early age.” . . . The main objective of the Miss Deaf America Talent Pageant was “ . . . a new concept to help us elevate the image and self-concept of deaf ladies throughout the United States. This is not an ordinary contest. . . . beauty, poise, gracefulness are desirable qualities, but the biggest point is one’s cultural talent performance.”22

As with the Miss America Pageant, four categories of competition have dominated the national Deaf pageant since the 1970s: evening gown, swimsuit, talent, and congeniality (the question and answer—Q&A—interview). At most, two of the categories—talent and interview—encourage expression in ASL, and judges are expected to assess fashion taste in all four sections (as listed on their ballots). Moreover, the talent and congeniality performances occur in the final rounds, after all the contestants have “passed” under the audience gaze, representing themselves solely with their bodies (not using signed or spoken language). Thus, although many claim that such pageants offer deaf women a chance to express themselves, it is a highly physicalized version of expression, and the performative nature of the Q&A leaves a tightly scripted—and muted—personal voice.

The example of Ann Billington, winner of the first Miss Deaf America pageant in 1972, encompasses these complicated notions of “normalcy,” beauty, and cultural deafness. Dressed in a trim white sailor suit, Billington signed while vocally singing a piece entitled “Hey, Look Me Over” during the talent competition. Raised orally, she only started to learn signs while attending Gallaudet College.23 Articles on Billington consistently noted her understandable speech and her ability to read lips well. Many other contestants and subsequent winners had similar backgrounds and abilities and were proud to express them.

Billington’s performance of exemplary deaf femininity continued during her reign as “an ambassador who conveys Deaf Awareness in beauty.”24 Mervin Garretson, president of the NAD in1978, asserted that Miss Deaf Americas as a group “face an awesome responsibility in projecting a positive and a genuine image of deaf persons, not only from the standpoint of entertainment, but also in information sharing and in engendering good will and acceptance of deaf people as they are.”25 One article specifically describing Billington proclaimed: “The Miss Deaf America winner is a talent queen! As such, she is a capable and beautiful performer. She can be helpful to your convention by performing a show whenever you need her talents, maybe at the ball or maybe during the banquet. She could sing a song at the banquet table, maybe ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ or ‘America the Beautiful.’”26

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