The Merits of “Miss Congeniality”

I was going to write a quick bit about the whole Daniel Tosh business (or, as I like to call it, the Annual Rape-Joke Discussion: In Which Comedians And Assholes Everywhere Band Together For The Right To Publicly Act Like Dicks Without Any Consequence Ever, And Then Call It “Just Comedy,” As Though Comedy Is An Easy Or Straightforward Thing, Because Free Speech!!!!!!!, Even Though Censorship Is Not Really At Issue And Audience Members And Even Random Internet Strangers Are Allowed To Have And Broadcast Opinions Too, Because, Hey, Free Speech!) – but before logging on I decided to prepare by watching “Wayne’s World.”  It had been a while, and I must say, conscious-raising does a lot to trash childhood favorites; my beefs with the film weren’t identical to the ones I had with “Ghostbusters”, but they were related (namely, “Wayne’s World” fails the Bechdel test pretty badly, and the sexual assault of Rob Lowe’s character by a cop is treated as a punchline).  "Wayne’s World" has a female director and a woman holds a writing credit; it still has a lot going for it, but it also has a lot of problems, and after I finished watching it I had the urge to rinse the flavor out of my mouth with something else altogether.  I was more in the mood for outright comedy than a comedic nostalgia piece, so I went with “Miss Congeniality” over “A League of Their Own”.


And, you guys?  "Miss Congeniality" is a GREAT fucking movie.


At first glance, there is nothing special about the film – it’s a classic ugly-duckling story, wherein the tough-girl gets a makeover and then gets the guy because, of course, she’s been secretly hot this entire time – but taking it at such face value ignores all of the genuinely subversive details.  First of all, Sandra Bullock’s Agent Gracie Hart isn’t your typical ugly duckling, made beautiful as soon as she takes her glasses off; no, Agent Hart is just a career woman in a typically masculine field, and she doesn’t wear makeup or spend time on her hair or other personal grooming.  She doesn’t dress provocatively, she snorts when she laughs, she chews with her mouth open, her apartment is a mess – what’s at issue in Agent Hart isn’t pure physicality but gender presentation.  She doesn’t present as feminine (and given the egregious boys’ club behavior of her colleagues, this is a perfectly logical decision), and so nobody thinks of her in feminine terms, where “feminine” is also inclusive of “romantic.”  Her actual physicality is conventionally attractive enough that when the time comes to find an agent to go undercover at the Miss USA pageant, Hart is the one for the job, even though she protests vociferously, ultimately caving in the name of duty.


And what’s great about Agent Grace Hart’s transition to Gracie Lou Freebush is that it really establishes the demands of conventional aesthetic femininity – and they are significant.  The makeover is not an upbeat, quick montage, but a two-day-long marathon of pain, made possible by the talents of two dozen professional beauticians operating on the federal government’s dime.  Gracie is waxed, plucked, dyed, and styled within an inch of her life, and when she emerges it is looking like the Sandra Bullock that we are familiar with from awards shows and movie openings: gorgeous.  And it only took an entire team of skilled people huge amounts of time and money to execute that transition!  The entire sequence reveals, skillfully and with humor, the cost of glamour and the lie of “natural” beauty, itself a construct.  (This is emphasized later as well, when we learn that the pageant contestants maintain their own weights and appearances through restrictive and unhealthy discipline; bulimia is a normative part of their experience.)


Once Gracie is made over, she is still not a swan: she can barely walk in heels, she eats carbs at every available opportunity, she still snorts when she laughs and speaks her mind, and she attempts to conceal her weapons as long as she can, even as they impede her pageant-ready looks and stride.  Where the film really succeeds, though, is when it begins challenging Gracie’s presumption that the Miss USA contestants are airheads – even as we see the trappings of the aesthetic feminine restrict Gracie’s ability to move freely or execute her job well, we also discover that the rest of the contestants have skills and interests ranging from opera to homeless outreach.  The one contestant who seems to embody the airhead stereotype most closely (well, besides the random girl who makes balloon animals as her talent) is shy, virginal, baton-twirling Miss Rhode Island, whose innocence and social awkwardness make even more sense late in the film, when we discover that she is studying to be a nuclear physicist.


Gracie has not perfected a pageant-ready talent, but in the competition’s finals, she demonstrates proper techniques of self-defense.  What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the dichotomy presented: the pageant audience is 100% on board, very enthusiastic about the whole thing, while the pageant organizers are aghast that such behavior is occurring on their watch.  But holding these dualities up is what the movie really excels at – in another very brief sequence, Gracie’s FBI partner and her older, fey male pageant coach enter the building at the last minute.  Bypassing outer security is easy because of of her partner’s badge (her coach talks his way in by saying “I’m with him”), but the situation is immediately flipped when they go backstage – the pageant planners recognize Gracie’s coach, and allow her partner in conditionally, when her coach says “He’s with me.”  It’s very short, but it’s a neat encapsulation of the lesson Gracie learns throughout the movie: that different circles of power operate on different codes of behavior, and what is appropriate or necessary or acceptable at the FBI is not always so elsewhere.  Sometimes – as in the romantic or sexual sphere – being aware of the fact that one has breasts can actually be a good thing.  (Taking femininity too far, though, is suggested to be dangerous: the movie’s ultimate villain is its most rigid arbiter of the aesthetic feminine, pageant director Kathy Morningside.)


Really, what Gracie discovers through her experience is not empowerment-through-mascara, but just a generalized body confidence; the intense practice of femininity put her in a position where she was forced to acknowledge and accept the femaleness of her body, and it is this, not her evening gowns, which ultimately ignites the spark between her and her partner (played by Benjamin Bratt, and clearly aware of his own physicality and attractiveness) – in fact, when he asks her out, he explicitly specifies that their date be upon their return to New York, after she “get[s] all ugly again.”


Aside from a Latino leading man the movie also has an above-average number of characters of color in the supporting cast, and there is a great bit wherein Latina Miss New York, cut from the pageant’s top ten, publicly announces not only that she is a lesbian but that she is in love with her girlfriend, a gorgeous blonde woman in the audience.  In the control room, the show’s producer wonders if they are allowed to say “lesbian” on air, and a more conventionally butch assistant producer shuts him down with a look and a “You got a problem with that?”  Again, it’s quick, but in those ten-fifteen seconds the movie represents a greater diversity of lesbian characters than most films do in two hours.


Finally, my favorite bit of duality arrives at the movie’s end.  Having warded off a bomb plot at the very last minute and saved the life of pageant winner Miss Rhode Island (the physicist), Gracie Lou Freebush reverts back to Agent Gracie Hart: she is wearing a suit and flat shoes, much less makeup (although visibly more than the no-makeup-whatsoever look she sported at the movie’s opening), and her hair is closer to frizzy than flatironed – she is back on the job as a regular FBI agent, not a beauty pageant entrant, and time for such extensive grooming has disappeared, although she seems to have picked up a couple tricks.  The pageant contestants lure her into their farewell brunch to present her with a final award – the title of Miss Congeniality.  The very best shot in the entire movie is when the words “Miss Congeniality” are spoken; the title refers to the contestant who has been the nicest and best-liked, but as Gracie receives the award, we linger on the face of Miss Texas.  Miss Texas has a broken nose, and it was Gracie who broke it, in a scuffle to get to the Miss USA crown (which was secretly a bomb) during the pageant’s very final moments.


What’s so great about this moment?  Well, because femininity is very much about niceness, politeness and courtesy and etiquette.  Punching somebody in the face and breaking their nose violates pretty much all of those notions, and it is those notions which the award of Miss Congeniality celebrates.  Gracie’s likability has nothing to do with a passive niceness and everything to do with working actively to help and protect those around her, which is a much more “masculine” interpretation of “congeniality” – and it’s quite perfectly and succinctly summed up in that shot of Miss Texas’s busted schnozz.  Sometimes real goodness is passive and polite, rooted in listening and making others feel comfortable and welcome; but oftentimes it is bold, and relies on the rejection of strict social norms (like those endorsed by pageants) to get good things done.


Coming on the heels of my epic post regarding the characterization of Sansa Stark as a representative of the aesthetic feminine, “Miss Congeniality” was a timely choice, adding more than I remembered or realized to the discussion of what femininity means.  Don’t take it at face value: as with the pageant contestants populating the movie, it has hidden depths, both funnier and more substantive than Daniel Tosh’s entire body of work.  (To be fair: that’s a pretty low bar, on both fronts…)


Sometimes a rom-com is just a rom-com, but sometimes, it’s a secret feminist mini-masterpiece.

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