This year’s Miss USA pageant brought the world another opportunity to rip a woman to shreds when Miss Utah, 21-year-old Marissa Powell, failed to coherently answer a current events question. Yes, the question was on a topic that directly impacts women. Yes, she could have done better. But, damn, can we just give her a break?
Let’s have some perspective. The interview portion of a pageant is meant to highlight the intellect and depth of the women involved. But the interview portion of the pageant comes shortly after the contestants are paraded across the stage dressed in nothing but bikinis.
Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, Image Credit: ABC News
Do you think we might be focusing our indignation on the wrong thing?
Sure, Miss Utah screwed up. She failed to grasp the question. Or maybe she understood the question but was just too nervous to pull her thoughts together. I don’t really care why she answered the way she did. I do care that in this digital age this embarrassing moment will follow her for years. Hell, the last contestant to fall apart during the interview portion of a national pageant event is having her debacle re-posted just so the salivating public can have a chance to debate which of these two women looked more ridiculous.
Here’s a hint: turn the camera on yourself. It’s possible we, the viewers, are part of the problem.
When I was a little girl pageant night was an special event. My friends and I would gather around the TV set for the LIVE broadcast. Armed with snacks and our notebooks we sat back ready to judge and learn.
First we would judge the contestants solely on their ability to look good on their walk down the pageant runway. Miss America contestants wore beautiful sequined gowns and Miss USA contestants wore state costumes that ranged from the adorable to the outrageous (points were regularly lost for having to hold up the headdresses—does no one do a test run?).
Then the semi-finalists were announced. It didn’t matter to us that they had been chosen hours, if not days before. For us the tension was real. This was serious business. This was more than just a contest. We were learning what it took to be beautiful. We were learning exactly what was valued in a woman.
Over the next two hours my friends and I would sit and scrutinize every inch of these women. Hair, makeup, waistlines, breasts, asses and any number of other assets. Somewhere along the way the host would ask the contestant a question to prove these were more than just pretty young things. These were, after all, scholarship pageants, so the women had to be more than just dimensions, high heels, and strategically placed toupee tape.
110 minutes of woman being paraded around like cows at a state fair and 10 minutes of women being allowed to speak. Seems fair, right? Seems appropriate, right? Seems like little girls watching are getting the perfect message, right?
Then a winner was announced.
Here she is, Miss Ideal. She’s rare and beautiful and you will spend your life hoping for a hint of what she has.
What pageants taught us is women are merely a collection of rights and wrongs and only the truly perfect receive praise, attention, and prizes. The imperfect are relegated to the back of the stage. Forgotten. Unimportant.
(Unless they screw up royally like Miss Utah and then they get a Tumblr site dedicated to their failure. The joys of modern bullying.)
Pageants have persisted longer than I think any of us thought they would. Over the years they have tried to modernize. They’ve tried to promote female empowerment. They’ve tried to tell us they are celebrating women of all kinds, though all shapes still seems to elude them.
And I admit they have, indeed, evolved. For example, in 1970, with the first African American contestant, the Miss America pageant finally proved they had moved past their notorious Rule Number Seven which read “contestant must be in good health and of the white race.” How enlightened of them.
Many women have come in and out of the pageant circuit just fine and are the better for it, but as a society I hope we can keep moving our tolerance for pageants to a place where we can’t imagine we ever had them in the first place. I don’t want one more nine-year-old girl sitting on a sofa with her friends trying to figure out how they will ever achieve that illusion of perfection and misappropriation of the idea of beauty that pageants promote.
I’m ready for pageants to have a Miss Utah moment of their own—a moment where they grasp at straws and gasp for air as they try to sound relevant but ultimately realize they are in over their heads and the world has moved on without them.
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Read more from K.M. O'Sullivan at http://kmosullivan.com/
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