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24 December 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:38am

From Drop Dead Gorgeous to Dumplin’: reclaiming beauty pageants on screen

All these dramas, from Little Miss Sunshine to Miss Congeniality, grapple with a central question – are beauty pageants anti-feminist?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In an unglamorous town in the USA, there is an unconventional, tomboyish girl who doesn’t quite fit in. Perhaps her mother – beautiful and feminine – is a former beauty pageant queen. Perhaps her friends at school are contestants, or perhaps ambition leads her there – the promise of scholarship funds or career advancement. Either way, this girl who doesn’t fit in finds herself thrust into an airless room thick with the mists of hairspray, where dark looks are exchanged over newly glossed lips, the sound of snapping Spanx bouncing around the walls. There she is, Miss Almost America.

She was there in Mount Rose, Minnesota for the town’s American Teen Princess Pageant in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). She was all grown up and smuggling her way in to San Antonio, Texas for the 75th Miss United States beauty pageant in Miss Congeniality (2000). She was a little girl travelling all the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California for the eponymous children’s pageant in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). She was an outsider begrudgingly competing in Bodeen, Texas’s Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant in Whip It (2009).

In 2018, she reappears three times. In Netflix’s Insatiable as the once-fat, now-skinny Patty (Debby Ryan) from Masonville, Georgia, competing in a number of ludicrously named pageants (Miss Bareback Buckaroo, Miss Magic Jesus) for some vague “revenge” on her former bullies. In Facebook Watch’s Queen America she is the hapless, clumsy Samantha of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the surprise winner-by-default of the Miss Oklahoma Starred and Striped US Beauty Pageant being whipped into shape for Miss America by her ruthless coach, Vicki (Catherine Zeta-Jones). And in Netflix’s feature film Dumplin’, she is Willowdean Dickson (Danielle McDonald) of Clover City, Texas; a fat, Dolly Parton-obsessed teenager who enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant as a protest against her pageant-winning mother (Jennifer Aniston).

This is unconventionality as convention. Though they vary significantly in quality (Dumplin’ is warm and generous, Queen America mediocre, and Insatiable borderline unwatchable), there are broad overlaps between each drama. Two make their leads obsessive over-relatable icons of eccentric femininity (Dolly Parton in Dumplin’, Drew Barrymore in Insatiable); and two set the scene with shots of their protagonists driving around their respective small towns listening to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”. All three explore pageants as the place where the standards of womanhood are set, as the ultimate hostile environment for fat girls, and as a financial opportunity for blue-collar families. All three know, like their predecessors, that the beauty pageant is the place where the capitalist fantasy of the American dream and the ugly duckling fairytale collide – you can be anyone, from anywhere, and become somebody special, glamorous, and beautiful. And all three, also like their predecessors, grapple with a central question – are beauty pageants anti-feminist?

Credit: Drop Dead Gorgeous

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Beauty pageant films are in part popular because of their intrinsically cinematic setting. A teenager-filled institution fraught with cliques and rivalries; a direct window into the traditions and community of a small-town setting; framing a centre stage, lights dimmed in preparation for stories of new-found confidence and discovered talents. But unlike their Hollywood cousins – films and TV shows about prom nights, talent shows, battles of the bands, dance-offs and cheerleading competitions – beauty pageant films often more directly discuss questions about femininity, womanhood, and feminism.

Beauty pageants have always been a contested space in feminist discourse. As Kimberly A Hamlin explains in her essay “Bathing suits and backlash: The first Miss America pageants 1921-1927”, American beauty pageants have their roots in the explicitly feminist suffragist parades of the 1910s. Suffragettes felt that parades and pageants were crucial to gaining support for their cause. Campaigners would dress up as an array of important women from history – be it Joan of Arc or Florence Nightingale. The iconic white sashes of modern pageants are relations of the sashes worn by suffragettes – sometimes emblazoned “Votes for Women”, sometimes bearing the names of the US states that had already granted women the vote. Miss America was founded in 1921, the year after the 19th amendment was passed allowing women to vote.

It seems difficult to imagine pageants, which foster some of our most rigid and oppressive beauty standards, as in any way related to an enfranchising feminist project. But defenders of pageants, fictional and real, counter criticisms with arguments that pageants are, in their own way, “empowering” women.

“Do you think that most people would say that teenage beauty pageants are a good idea?” asks a voice from behind the camera in 1999’s cult satire Drop Dead Gorgeous. “Oh, yah, sure,” replies Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), pageant organiser and former beauty queen, in her sarcastic, tense Minnesotan voice. “I know what some of your big city, no bra-wearin’ hairy-legged women’s libbers say. Pageants are old-fashioned and, uh, and demeaning to the girls.” She barely dignifies the accusations with a response. “For one thing, y’know, we’re God-fearin’ folk. Every last one of us.”  

Miss Congeniality’s equivalent role, another pageant organiser and former beauty queen, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen), is similarly vitriolic. “I’ve been fighting all my life against your type. The ones who think we’re just a bunch of worthless airheads. You know who I mean. Feminists, intellectuals… ugly women. But I refuse to give in to their cynicism. That’s why I have dedicated my entire life to this scholarship programme.” Dumplin’s pageant organiser and former beauty queen, Jennifer Aniston’s Rosie, is less extreme, demurring that “Not everybody understands what these pageants are all about.”

One character, early on in Dumplin’, describes pageants as institutions of “the oppressive heteropatriarchy unconsciously internalised by the female psyche”; Gracie in Miss Congeniality balks, “It’s like feminism never even happened. Any woman that does this is catering to misogynistic Neanderthal mentality.” These are the polarised views that must be reconciled or chosen between by the time the credits roll.

Credit: Little Miss Sunshine

Almost every beauty pageant film makes unavoidably clear that pageants are one big gender performance – requiring contestants to mimic long-standing stereotypes of femininity. This is not limited to the obligatory makeover sequence every dramatisation of pageants contains, but extends into everything from expressions, mannerisms and emotions (freely flowing tears of shock and gratitude) to character and beliefs (peace-loving, selfless, warm). In 2018, our leads are coached into becoming perfect pageant queens by another kind of gender performer – drag queens. The implication is that queer people, particularly those emulating, exaggerating or subverting femininity on stage, have a particular insight about gendered codes of behaviour, and self-acceptance, and can pass on their wisdom to unconventional cis leads. In Dumplin’, a drag queen coaches Willowdean via Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” In Queen America, Samantha discovers her talent at a drag karaoke night. At a charity bikini car wash staffed with volunteers from a LGBTQ centre, Insatiable’s Patty bonds with a trans woman over their shared body insecurities (“If anyone understands feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, it’s me”).

Little Miss Sunshine opens with seven-year-old Olive Hoover’s blinking, bespectacled eyes glued to a fuzzy VHS recording of a Miss America winner’s ceremony. Taking an unselfconscious stance, with her tiny hand resting on her pot belly, she rewinds and replays the moment of coronation. Then, slowly, she starts to imitate Miss America – hands stuck to the sides of her face in shock, mouth wide in a hysterical, disbelieving grin, then copying a graceful wave.

Soaking up the recording like a sponge, Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a soft and malleable young girl. We watch her internalise her father’s speeches on winners and losers, and blindly follow her grandfather’s pageant coaching advice. One scene in a diner sees her father tell her, “If you eat lots of ice-cream, you’re gonna become big and fat”, unlike the women in Miss America – she responds by pushing her bowl away and saying, “Does anyone want my ice-cream?” But when the rest of the family encourage her to return to it, eating it themselves with exaggerated pleasure, she’s persuaded again, picking up her spoon with glee. Like most children, Olive is confused and extremely impressionable, internalising the views of others, particularly the patriarchal figures in her life, on how she should behave. When she eventually makes it to the pageant stage, her performance violates the carefully navigated codes of female expression by making the sexual undertones of child beauty pageants explicit in her chosen talent: a strip routine to “Superfreak”. Though Olive is in many ways the most sexually oblivious candidate in the competition, she subverts the conventions of the pageant by rejecting a lightly sexualised, submissive gender performance and instead doing something more overt and assertive (Olive is genuinely enjoying herself when she dances and poses, rather than hoping to titillate her audience). Despite watching and re-watching taped performances, she has missed some of the key subtleties of pageant performance.

Drop Dead Gorgeous, too, opens with wannabee pageant contestants watching old footage of earlier contestants. Queen America sees Vicki insist a winner “has to act grateful to the point of apologetic”, because “nobody likes a pretty girl who expects big things to happen to her”. Even The Simpsons’ foray into beauty pageant plots, “Lisa the Beauty Queen”, sees Bart coach Lisa on winner’s etiquette: Lisa gasps with shock, and Bart narrates: “Ok, wipe away a tear, hug the loser, and now for your triumphant walk down the runway.” In Miss Congeniality, when Gracie (Sandra Bullock) watches her own tapes of former pageants, she ridicules the winner with an exaggerated impression of her – weeping and gasping, interspersed with derisive cry of “Oh, if I only had a brain!” But by the film’s final scene, Gracie’s performance is as sincere as it is accurate. In the film’s simultaneous resolution and punchline, she sobs, “I’m very, very honoured, and moved and truly touched… and I really do want world peace!” Her character has been subsumed and transformed by the pageant’s ideals of femininity – and we’re meant to see her as better off for it.

Credit: Miss Congeniality

When pageant films try and defend pageants to their audiences, they share key arguments: they are important institutions of community and tradition; they are sites of female friendships; they boost the self-esteem of young women, giving them confidence; they are scholarship programmes; they require incredible effort from contestants; they reward brains and talent and inner beauty, not (just) looks. Mothers and former beauty queens emphasise history: “Your mee-maw was Miss Blue Bonnet, I was Miss Blue Bonnet, and you will be Miss Blue Bonnet”, Brooke says to her daughter in Whip It. “I will not have you make a mockery of me or this institution, which has been a cornerstone of our community since 1933,” Rosie declares to her daughter in Dumplin’. But this obsession with tradition is almost always rejected by young leads, who either hope for pageants to change, or refuse to be a part of them completely. If they do come round to pageants, it’s for very different reasons.

The lead characters of Dumplin’, Insatiable, Queen America et al are shocked to discover the level of effort that goes into pageants – from the intensity of the beauty makeovers to the rigorous workouts to honing talents to finessing interview answers. Dumplin’ begins with Rosie exclaiming “They work so hard!”, and Willowdean sarcastically replying, “Yes, walking is so, so hard”: but by the end she appreciates the effort her friends have gone to in competing, and is surprised to see genuine talent rewarded. For some, the simple fact that pageants are hard work is enough to redeem them morally – it’s a distinctly American idea that something hard won is therefore intrinsically worth winning. Some refute this idea: Drop Dead Gorgeous makes a mockery of sheer dedication with the anorexic Miss Minnesota Teen Princess, Mary, who brags of the hours of practice, exercise and preparation she put into the pageant from her hospital bed. The first line of dialogue in Little Miss Sunshine is Olive’s dad declaring, “There’s two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers”. Want it badly enough, he insists, and work hard enough, and you’ll be a winner. The film sees all the characters grapple with the realisation that they might not be winners, and eventually come to understanding that desperately striving towards an abstract idea of winning might be meaningless, anyway.

But what if pageants aren’t about hard work, or success, but friendship? Can sisterhood transform pageants into an inherently empowering space? Though Miss Congeniality claims over and over again “It is not a beauty pageant! It is a scholarship program!”, Gracie is not won over by the pageant’s academic credentials, but by the other contestants. When she is asked on stage, “As you may know, there are many who consider the Miss United States pageant to be outdated and anti-feminist. What would you say to them?” she responds, “I would have to say, I used to be one of them. And then I came here and I realized that these women are smart, terrific people who are just trying to make a difference in the world. We’ve become really good friends […] For me, this experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.” Her concerns about problematic ideals of womanhood promoted by the organisation seemingly evaporate. In Miss Congeniality, the real Miss America is the friends we made along the way. Dumplin’, too, ends with the revelation that and beauty contests could foster friendships – “Who knew beauty pageants could be a team sport?” – though it is more nuanced here, as friendship is what enables the pageant to be changed, from the inside, into a more inclusive, body-positive space.

Of course, the simple fact that an organisation contains kind or intelligent women who get along with and support each other is not enough to make it a feminist project. In Whip It and Little Miss Sunshine, our leads find better communities elsewhere – the vapid, poisonous culture of pageants just drives them closer to their families, or a free-wheeling, ass-kicking roller derby troupe. And in Drop Dead Gorgeous, Amber (Kirsten Dunst) finds friends willing to quit the pageant so she can succeed, but it’s not enough to prevent the pageant from seeming like a terrible, corrupt institution full of vindictive, power-hungry hypocrites.

Miss Congeniality ultimately redeems pageants, as does Dumplin’, on the condition that they undergo some fairly radical changes to become more inclusive to different kinds of womanhood. In Whip It, pageants are ultimately harmless, and can even be great for the people in them – as long as they want to be there. Insatiable’s principles are so scatter-shot it’s impossible to get any sense of whether pageants are a positive or negative force in a morally chaotic world, both it and Queen America often feel like they are trying hard to be edgy and caustic wherever possible, and their satire ends up missing the mark as a result. Older but still more cutting, Drop Dead Gorgeous comes at pageants with an edge both sharp and serrated, but for me, the film is so cruel to all its characters – including the disabled, ill and vulnerable – that it dilutes its condemnation of the beauty pageant world. But Little Miss Sunshine, to me, manages to be both empathetic, warm and fiercely against the ideals pageantry upholds. Olive subverts the pageant so completely that she is banned from entering one in the state of California ever again. “You know what?” Olive’s brother Dwayne declares, “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another.”

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