Parallel to the Star Tribune‘s article on Halima Aden breaking ground by being the first contestant to wear a hijab and burkini in show , just three days ago the Star Tribune published an article mirroring the same language and pose concerning the Miss Minnesota pageant, but for a different trailblazer: a woman with Down syndrome . I find it fascinating that both articles, while authored by different people, are titled by naming these women not with their given names but with their identities: “Somali-American teen” and “Woman with Down syndrome”. This is not the only rhetoric that marks both articles.
The rhetoric and symbolism of ‘first’ is prevalent within this article as well. “Mikayla [Holmgren] is a trailblazer,” who will be the “first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the state pageant, and as far as pageant officials know, the first in the country”. Similarly to Halima, “[h]er participation reflects the new strides toward body acceptance and more diverse beauty ideals that are being made not only in pageants, but on fashion runways and television.” Clearly, there is a lot at stake. People involved in the pageant even go so far as to say that “society’s traditional view of what’s beautiful is changing”.
Indeed, Mikayla recognizes the weight of her participation in this institution, saying that she hopes her presence will help to change the way society views disabilities and how we construct beauty. And yet, contrasted with this is a line from Mikayla’s mother about not wanting to be defined by Down syndrome and that label. In other words, much in the way that Vanessa Williams represented her race, regardless of whether she wanted to or not , Mikayla, too, represents those with Down syndrome—and perhaps even more broadly, those with disabilities.
Interestingly, the article begins immediately with:
When Mikayla Holmgren applied for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, she submitted a lengthy résumé that highlighted her past pageant experience, her status as a triple-threat athlete and her work as a mentor for other young women like her.
While I admittedly know relatively little about what it takes to be a contestant in a pageant, the language of “lengthy résumé” and “triple-threat” struck me as a sign of how Mikayla would have to work much harder than the average applicant to be considered of equal standing—much like the women of color in pageants, as reflected in the lack of black Miss Americas despite being nominally race-neutral, objective, or colorblind.
Much the opposite, according to Wallace, executive co-director of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant; they have always valued inclusion and diversity and “what is amazing and beautiful about this [Mikayla’s presence] is the fact that women are finally seeing representations of themselves in this capacity”. However, I think similar questions can be asked of this situation as of Halima’s and of Vanessa Williams’s: Is Mikayla’s mere presence enough, or is the symbolic victory of becoming Miss Minnesota or Miss America necessary for Wallace’s statement to be true? Even if Mikayla does go far in the pageant, can one person really “represent” such heterogeneous groups as people with Down syndrome or people who are differently-abled? How much will Mikayla’s presence be a show of symbolic progressivism? It will be interesting to observe the rhetoric of the media come November when Mikayla participates in full.
 Liz Sawyer, “Somali-American teen makes semifinals at Miss Minnesota USA pageant,” Star Tribune, November 28, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/somali-american-teen-makes-semifinals-at-miss-minnesota-usa-pageant/403288226/
 Aimee Blanchette, “Woman with Down syndrome to compete in Miss Minnesota USA pageant,” Star Tribune, April 22, 2017, http://www.startribune.com/first-woman-with-down-syndrome-to-compete-in-miss-minnesota-usa-pageant/420145783/
 Sarah Banet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1999).