Beauty pageants, feminism, gender gaps…

Is it okay if we stop expecting thoughtful, profound answers from beauty pageants contestants? At the 2013 Miss USA pageant, Miss Utah was asked about gender inequality in the workplace – specifically the gender gap in pay. The question was given by The Real Housewives of Atlanta breakout star NeNe Leakes. Which just goes to show you just how serious this thing is. Oh, and the musical guest –  the Jonas Brothers. I know, this is very, very, serious…

Unfortunately, Miss Utah – aka Marissa Powell – went through a dizzying, rambling and incoherent response that would make Sarah Palin purse her lips in disapproval.

Of course to many, this will recall the 2007 Miss Teen USA contest where Caitlin Upton, representing South Carolina, gave a confused and confusing answer to a question about education. Ms. Upton became an Internet meme, as will probably Ms. Powell (as did Mrs. Palin).

I get why people want to laugh at Ms. Powell – I gotta admit, I first saw that video, my jaw dropped to the ground with a metallic thud, as Powell’s twisty nonlogic spiraled out of control. And immediately, I snorted with self-satisfaction. I did the same with Upton.

But why did I?

What is it about beauty queens – and beautiful girls in general that makes us absolutely thrilled when they say something stupid? It’s a trope that exists in popular culture, despite ample evidence to the contrary (to make a list of attractive and intelligent women would be insulting, so I’m just not gonna go there). We still like it though, when a bouncy, bubbly (preferably) blonde beauty drops a buttload of Malaprops with a helium giggle.

We don’t think beauty and brains will match because we cannot fathom that sexuality and intelligence can coexist. In women, that is. So when a beauty like Ms. Powell drops a verbal deuce on TV, we all get to laugh and implicitly our laughter is saying, “See? She’s pretty – but there’s not much going on up there!” And we feel better about ourselves.

And I’m not trying to defend Ms. Powell – in fact, I think her answer was appalling. A woman should arm herself with the most potent weapon against misogyny: education. With an education, women like Powell can prove their detractors wrong by achieving intellectual goals.

Ah, but wait a minute – this whole story started at a beauty pageant.

So along with asking why do we find beautiful stupidity so glorious, we should be asking, “why the hell are we still having beauty pageants?” But if we decide, “yes, the ritual of displaying young women on a stage for the male gaze is acceptable, and in fact, great for family entertainment,” then why are we asking these women questions about the economy, gender inequality, same-sex marriage, the education crisis in America? When these young ladies win these crowns, their jobs won’t be going to Capitol Hill or working with the senate. Their jobs will essentially be, “be pretty!” And if they do have to speak, it’ll be reading from a script or a TelePrompTer (hate to burst your bubble, but the oh-so-witty-it’s-like-Dorothy-Parker-Oscar-Wilde-and-Noel-Coward-all-rolled-into-one banter on Access Hollywood isn’t improvised). So why do we care what Mariss Powell of Utah thinks about gender inequality?

Why? Because the folks behind Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, Miss America, Miss World, Miss Planet, Miss Universe, Miss Galaxy, Miss All That Is in Existence, etc – they know that the grumbling is starting to get noticed – that these beauty pageants are nothing more than what would happen if someone put on a Broadway show based on a Victoria’s Secret catalogue – I just want to pause for a second and point out that the same woman who was just asked about gender inequality in the workplace, had to compete in a competition that is solely judged on how well she fills out a swimsuit.

The organizers are starting to figure out that all this pageantry is bullshit – so they’re including these faux intellectual details like a question and answer bit. And even though the question was always part of the competition, we were always used to the softball question (so soft, I’d like to officially change the idiom to “cottonball question” – who’s with me?) like “What would you do as [insert insulting and/or patronizing title]?” And the contestant would always give a variation on “I want to help the world…old people…children…animals” and we’d all clap in approval at how nice Miss Arkansas seems to be – and hey! she can play the flute and looks fantastic in a two-piece!

Nowadays we’re a little more hip to feminism and expecting more from women than just good looks – but there’s a side effect to that: mildly challenging questions during the question portion of the competition. And that side effect has another side effect: beautiful women – possibly perfectly intelligent – looking really stupid because they’re not prepared (though how prepared does one have to be to answer a question about gender inequality in the workplace – it sucks! It needs to be changed! Women are just as good as men! Women deserve equal pay! Where’s my tiara and sash?)

What this episode illustrated is not how dumb a beauty pageant can be, but just how stale and ridiculous it is to groom girls to become beauty queens. This would never have happened if women like Ms. Powell were raised to become great thinkers – instead of dangling a tiara and a spray of red roses as a carrot of achievement, we should be dangling a diploma and an impressive resume. These beauty pageants are a sick form of eugenics where women are treated almost like show dogs. And treating women like show dogs – now that’s stupid.


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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, Television

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