Is Miss America to blame for Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' video?
A single phrase -- "blood libel" -- has defined this video so far. But there's so much more in it that bears contemplating. The flag. The props. The attire. After I watched all 53 videos made by the Miss America contestants, it all made sense: It's a Miss America pitch.
The talents of Miss America contestants largely fall into one of two categories: an actual talent that is somewhat annoying (ventriloquism, tap dancing, singing, ballet, full-contact yoga) or giving a vague, meandering speech that seems to feel it left a point somewhere but can't remember where.
"Drowning is a leading cause of death in America, and it is my goal as Miss America 2011 to eliminate this from our nation's fears," says Miss Arizona. "It is also my goal to be the Miss America that comes with all the bells and whistles, and one that makes a huge splash," Miss Arizona adds, before ringing a bell, blowing a whistle, and being splashed repeatedly while giggling.
"I still have thirty seconds left, so I'm gonna talk now," Miss Kentucky says. "I absolutely love cheesecake. I have a younger brother. I love to polish my nails in bright colors because I am a bright-colored person."
"Our Miss America also needs to be a woman of compassion," Miss Michigan explains. "And if there's one thing I do kind of okay, it's probably compassion...So if you're looking for a Miss America with a little bit of intellect, a little bit of physical strength, and a little bit of compassion, I might just be your girl." Don't everybody rush to sign up at once!
I have no idea what Miss Utah is doing. She appears to be working out while answering questions from a hair dryer. Then she drops barbells on someone.
"Beans are an excellent source of protein," sings Miss Nevada.
"I am a true testament to what has set apart the Miss America program," Miss Indiana intones. "I stand here today with more than just the dream of becoming Miss America but the ability to truly believe that on the inside and out that will always be one of my greatest accomplishments."
It's not the gimmicks (singing dog puppet, Miss Arkansas?) that are most familiar. It's the affinity for props -- guns, tiaras, construction hats. It's the tendency to club people over the head with metaphors. The meandering, aimless speeches.
"The mass will hopefully help begin a healing process for the families touched by this tragedy and for our country," Palin intones, "our exceptional country so vibrant with ideas and passionate exchange and debate of ideas -- a light to the rest of the world." It's the ability to speak without saying anything or appearing to understand what you're saying.
It's the perpetual smile.
Palin's speechwriting style, which compresses the largest possible amount of what might be words into the smallest possible amount of what might be thought, comes to us by way of this competition -- she was, after all, third-runner up for Miss Alaska in 1984. And this vague approximation of style gives us gems like "blood libel."
It's a sad statement about where public discourse is that, in response to this particularly infelicitous choice of phrase, the defense that is used is, "She has no real idea what any of the words mean." This is the sort of thing that gets me, for lack of a better word, somewhat wee-weed up.
So I can't help wondering: Is Miss America to blame for Sarah Palin?
In spite of all its efforts to catch up with the progress that I hear women have made since they first strutted down the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 1921, Miss America has always favored style over substance. The greater public knows this. When it was put to a vote in 1995, 79 percent of people voted to retain the swimsuit portion, better known as "the only portion anyone pays attention to in this competition unless someone's a really good singer."
Still, ever since the alleged bra-burning incident on the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the objectification at the heart of Miss America 1968, Miss America has been trying to revamp its image. Now it's a Scholarship Competition. But is it really? Not to demean the resumes or achievements of individual contestants, but overall the shift away from straight-up beauty contest has simply had the effect of adding into the mix a section where you ask beautiful people basic questions they seem unable to answer, while forcing them to tap-dance and "advocate."
"I'll be representing the modern young leaders of our generation," threatens Miss Ohio. "I won't be your grandma's Miss America."
No! I want to shout. I'd prefer it if you were! Can we make a deal? I won't ask you to talk to me about the importance of child literacy if you won't force me to look poised in evening-wear and a bikini.
Miss America now epitomizes the kind of mistaken feminism that has gotten Sarah Palin so far. It's the idea that you can still judge women by their looks as long as you force them to talk about hot-button issues. It's still a bathing beauty contest -- but now there's an achievement and personality component. This reminds me of a time I responded to a Craigslist ad that was looking for a woman whose brains matched her beauty. "Hey there," I said. "I'm not that smart, but then again I'm also pretty ugly." Why are we forcing these widely disparate axes onto the same graph?
I understand that attractive people are often intelligent. I am not trying to demean the program. But I have watched all 53 videos, and if these are in fact the modern young leaders of our generation, I am moving to Switzerland.
We should just crown the best-looking person in a bathing suit. We shouldn't muddy the waters by attempting to crown the best-looking person who can also string together a vaguely coherent sentence about world peace while making a balloon animal.
The full horror of the new Miss America is epitomized by Miss Florida, who recites an alphabetical litany of why she deserves to be Miss America. These disjointed, meandering talking points chillingly summarize the formula that thrusts people like Sarah Palin onto the national scene: "A, action, B, believing in yourself, C, confidence, D, drive, E, education, F, fear, G, goalsetting, H, having fun, I, independence, J, jobs, K, kindness, L, leadership, M, motivation, N, never negative, O, optimistic, P, perseverance, Q, quest or queen, R, reliability, T, time commitment, U, unlimited power, V, victory, W, winner, X, excellence, Z, zest."
"Oh," Miss Florida adds, "I forgot one letter -- S. S is for success." She also forgot Y. Didn't we all.
| January 12, 2011; 5:19 PM ET
Categories: Big Deals, Petri, Reality? Television | Tags: America, Miss America, Sarah Palin, scary
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