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Beauty Pageants Are Bad for Everyone

Today's pageants are a sanitized and sanctioned outgrowth of nineteenth-century carnival sideshows.
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Beauty pageants are bad for everyone, a fact underscored by Miss Utah's Marissa Powell in this week's Miss USA pageant. Powell's clumsy handling of a question about the cultural significance of wage disparity between men and women produced a moment of juicy schaudenfraude becoming increasingly commonplace and even hoped for on the pageant circuit. Her verbal fumbling, reminiscent of Caitlin Upton's garbled response during her Miss Teen USA appearance, swiftly branded her a pageant disaster while similarly unkind cyber headlines burned up the web: "Miss Utah Bombs During Pageant Q&A," "Miss Utah Dumbest Pageant Answer Ever!" "Miss Utah Marissa Powell Facepalm Moment During the Miss USA Pageant." Cue the carny music.

Pageants are a sanitized and sanctioned outgrowth of nineteenth-century carnival sideshows. In the context of this popular, antebellum entertainment, individuals with physical or racial differences were theatrically exploited to seem exotic, dangerous or supernatural. Patrons paid small sums to gawk at the living "wonders," staged, costumed and put on display for no other purpose than to entertain and excite. Pageantry operates on the same kind of visual and representational politics except that contestants are made to appear desirable rather than estranged. Beauty pageants create an aggrandized spectacle of idealized beauty presented in a Busby Berkley-esque display of fearful symmetry: the parade of flawless bodies, the repetitive flash of white teeth, the blinding shine of luxurious hair. With the ostensible focus on show coupled with the shallow and seemingly arbitrary physical standards that determine a contestant's eligibility, is it any wonder that intellectualism awkwardly crammed into the pageant becomes the equivalent of a "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" inside joke levied at the expense of these young women?

Because if we really cared about what Miss Powell had to say about wage gap, it would not be a beauty pageant, it would be a Brain Bowl, a Nerd-Off or a Charlie Rose Interview Competition For Fame and Prizes. Now THAT'S a show I could get behind. Pageantry is an offensive business, made even more so when it masquerades as a pseudo-intellectual enterprise. Despite the fact that most of these women are smart, accomplished individuals with diverse talents and expertise, no one expects those elements to outshine the dress, the hair or the bikini body. In a sense, these contestants are already set up to fail due to the narrow political and representational parameters of the pageant and the public's insatiable thirst for vapid exhibition. Marissa Powell is not a walking "gaffe," she's a casualty of an outmoded, outdated cultural enterprise that celebrates femininity in its most limiting and one-dimensional form.

Post-pageant Powell made the rounds to various media outlets and morning shows eager to give her a shot at redemption, only too willing to invite her on to relive her humiliation in the name of second chances. On The Today Show, Powell gave a cogent answer to her pageant question, proving to the world that she was not a class-A moron and earning her validating applause from everyone's favorite morning show "Dad," Matt Lauer. It was a moment that came too late to earn her the crown, but just in time to make sure the sideshow stayed interesting.

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