Televised beauty pageants have reached such a nadir of cultural relevance today that it seems the only time we pay attention to them is when a contestant makes a viral-worthy flub during the question-and-answer portion. Then we have our stereotypes confirmed about beautiful women being brainless, and everyone has a good laugh at their expense. Shame on us.
Few of us remember pageant moments of grace and talent and poise, but who doesn’t remember the painfully incomprehensible answer from poor Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina, to why she thinks so many Americans are geography-challenged? Or Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, saying that the answer to gender pay inequity is “to create education better”?
This time it was our very own Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, who found herself at the wrong end of a rather heavy question from boxer and pageant judge Manny Pacquiao during the Miss Universe pageant earlier this week. “If you were given 30 seconds to deliver a message to global terrorists,” he struggled in awkward English, “what would you say?”
Honestly, what would any of us say in such a theoretical scenario? “Stop killing people”? Is lecturing “global terrorists” now one of the duties and obligations of Miss Universe? What was Miss Sanchez expected to do, deliver a concisely-crafted statement on foreign policy and a strategy for defusing international terrorism? All of the policy wonks in our own government can’t even manage that, but Miss USA is expected to have an answer up the sleeve of her sleeveless gown?
So Nia Sanchez did what beauty pageant contestants are expected to do in these tricky circumstances, and that is offer up a generic olive branch to everyone everywhere: “I know as Miss USA I can always spread a message of hope and love and peace, and I would do my very best to spread that message to them and everyone else in the world.”
She ended as first runner-up to Miss Colombia, so it isn’t as if her unsophisticated answer got her booted offstage. But to many Monday morning pageant judges, it felt like a bland cop-out, and so the predictable internet snark began. “Hope, love, and peace will be your message to global terrorists? GOOD ONE MISS USA,” read one tweet. “This is why we’re doomed,” read one headline.
Pageant contestants learned their lesson about taking a stand on the issues back in the very politicized 2009 Miss USA pageant, when Miss California Carrie Prejean was cornered with a gotcha! question from gossip maven Perez Hilton about gay marriage. She dared to answer from her conscience, and outrage ensued over her shocking belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Hilton, having gotten the controversy he was angling for, blogged gleefully about it the next day, calling her a “dumb b**ch” and a “c**t.” He told ABC News, “She lost it because of that question. She was definitely the front-runner before that.”
Pageant winners, by definition, are supposed to be emissaries of good will, representative of their entire state or country – or in the case of this week’s pageant, the whole universe. Politics, by its very nature, is divisive and contentious. It’s a no-win situation, literally, for contestants to answer politicized questions, and they shouldn’t have to.
Beauty pageant contestants, like fashion models, get a bum rap for not swelling the ranks of MENSA, but this is unfair. The handful in both fields that I have known have been educated and cultured, but at that age they don’t have all the answers. No one expects 24-year-old pro football players or insurance salesmen or Hollywood actors or dental technicians or people of any other profession to stand up under lights and cameras and expound intelligently on a pop quiz of random world issues – why expect that of very young women in beauty pageants?
Nia Sanchez is 24 years old. The aforementioned Miss Upton and Miss Powell were 18 and 21 respectively at the time of their humiliating brain freezes, enshrined on the internet for all time. At that age range I wouldn’t have had articulate, soundbite-ready answers to politically-charged questions, either, much less the poise to respond to them spontaneously with a smile as the world watched.
If you think pageants are shallow and sexist, then don’t watch. If you enjoy the gowns and the hair and the beauty, then appreciate them for that. But it’s mean-spirited and uncharitable to hold these ladies up as objects of ridicule for not being political pundits.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/5/15)