I'm a sucker for beauty pageants. I love to watch! So I tuned in last night for Miss USA 2016.

Here's my review. Let's start with the good:

I was very impressed with the organization's obvious effort to highlight the women behind the pretty faces and lovely gowns. The introductions of all 52 contestants highlighted a diverse group with myriad achievements: Some were business owners. Some had started non-profit groups. Some had battled eating disorders or mental health issues. Some were first-generation American citizens, or the first in their families to attend college. There were women from practically every field, from arts and entertainment to STEM to athletics — even one from the military. Each contestant had an interesting background and a compelling story to tell about her life. The USA should be proud to highlight such successful women. 

Now the downside of the night (the bad), in my opinion, was the interview portion.

The USA organization chooses the questions and nearly every question this year was explicitly political in nature. I thought this was unfortunate. While the interview portion is important — a great opportunity for judges and audience members to hear from the finalists — it's not meant to be a political debate. There are many questions that would inspire critical or creative thinking in these young women without resorting to political issues. The worst question of the night was the last one, reserved for Miss Hawaii, who was explicitly asked whom she would vote for in November: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and why. Contestants in the Miss USA pageant are competing for a chance to represent the whole country, and they shouldn't be asked to tick off one half of the viewing audience by wading into politics. Miss Hawaii did a very graceful job answering, essentially refusing to say which candidate she would choose but offering her opinion about what leadership style the next president should embrace.

Miss California's interview question has received the most attention today. Her question was about economic inequality and how to address it. Certainly, this topic deserves more than 30 seconds of a response. She struggled to put together an answer before she reached the time limit. It's hard to imagine the judges could objectively evaluate answers to questions such as these. 

Congratulations are due to Miss District of Columbia, who took home the crown. She competed with excellence throughout the competition. During the interview portion, she answered a question about women in the military – a fortuitous assignment, as Miss DC is an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. She applauded the Obama Administration's decision to open all combat roles to women. Personally, I saw a little irony in the question and answer: There was no mention of any reason why women might not serve in all combat roles. There was no mention of any inherent differences between the sexes. And yet, no men compete for the Miss USA title. For more on this topic, I recommend IWF's booklet on our "Women Fighting on the Front Lines" event, which showcased several thoughtful perspectives on women in combat.

The final question of the night was more appropriate and less political. The three remaining competitors were asked to define what it means to be confidently beautiful. This seemed like another effort from the Miss USA organization to shift the focus of the pageant away from physical beauty, and to further a conversation about inner beauty. Miss Georgia stressed accepting our flaws and loving ourselves. Miss Hawaii stressed service and compassion and the most beautiful traits. And Miss DC pointed out that beauty is sometimes associated with weakness, but should be associated with strength. Each gave very different but heartfelt answers.

Some people demean beauty pageants as outdated or patriarchical, but if you listen to those who participate, they often express that the experience is meaningful and empowering to them. To me, the whole evening highlighted many different ways women in the USA are leading beautiful lives.