Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, January 25, 2008

Here she comes again..Miss America!

This Saturday,TLC will be broadcasting the 2008 Miss America pageant,live from the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas. Despite the fact that Atlantic City,the former longtime home of the pageant,is just as big of a gambling town as Vegas,it really doesn't feel like the same old pageant that many of us love to hate and hate to love.

Miss America is a basic template for the beauty contest phenomenon that has become one of our nation's biggest feminine pop culture icon. For decades,to dream of becoming a beauty queen was considered a lofty and ambitious goal for young women to aspire to. With many of socio-political changes for women over the years,pageants have turned into proper targets for scorn and ridicule by feminists and snobs alike.

I won't pretend that I haven't engaged in some of this mockery myself-one of the highlights of my youth was watching the Miss America show with my family to hoot and holler at some of the really bad displays of talent. I did also root for certain girls to win(mainly New York or anyone closely representing the East Coast). It's also true that beauty contests can be breeding grounds for low self-esteem and cheesy exploitation. Like most things in this country,it is best to simply accept the fact that beauty pageants are just as much of a reflection upon society as any other creative outlets and should be acknowledged as such,not to be shoved into the back of our cultural closet like a crappy gift from your least favorite aunt.

There's quite a few movies that have taken on the beauty queen mythos with a vengeance. One of the more overlooked ones was Drop Dead Gorgeous,starring Kristen Dunst and Denise Richards as rival contestants in a local pageant dominated by Richards' mother(Kristie Alley). It's an out and out parody,made in a mockumentary style that's actually rather amusing at times.

A good number of the jokes are as subtle as a pie in the face but it does hit the bullseye on such topics as adults reliving their youth thru their children,extreme body image issues,social class snobbery and those gimmicky entertainment portions of the pageant show:

Sandra Bullock did well with the slightly more subdued wink and nudge at pageantry follies in Miss Congeniality(well enough to get a lackluster sequel made). I've only seen parts of this movie on and off recently(it's been featured on the revolving film filler circuit of many basic cable channels lately)but I get why it was such a big hit when it was out in theaters.

Bullock is usually at her best when taking on tomboy roles-she easily slips into the comfy shoes of the gal who plays just as hard as the boys but with the right coaxing,can be turned into a glamorous creature with a few touches of make-up and the right dress. In this movie,she's the perfect Everywoman who walks the line between being more than just a pretty face and enjoying a moment of princesshood in the spotlight:

Little Miss Sunshine focused on children's beauty pageants as the film's Macguffin but even before Olive did her infamous dance number,she was already a stand out. For one thing,she was the only girl entered in the contest who actually looked her age. All of the other girls were more made up and costumed than the usual participants in the Greenwich Village annual Halloween parade.

Movies aren't the only place where we mock and gawk at pageants;if you're willing to include high school beauty competitions,then Julie Brown's dark comic operetta of a questionably tasteful tune is ideal for this discussion:

The only novel that I know of that has a beauty pageant plotline is Fannie Flagg's Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man(aka "Coming Attractions"-why the title was changed is beyond me)which tell the life story of Miss Daisy Fay Harper,who grows up with her ne'do well of a father during the fifties and later competes to be Miss Mississippi.

Even if you have no interest in pageants,the book is great fun to read. Flagg blends the mix of humor and pathos in the pages of Daisy Fay's journal to create a girl who's a true to life character instead of a propped-up caricature. Also,there are tons of laugh out loud scenes(one of my favorites is the Haunted House revenge taken on Daisy's Nellie Olson,Kay Bob Benson)that can really make your sides ache.

I will most likely tune in to Miss America this weekend,to see if the TLC "reality check" approach helps or hinders the contest. Atleast someone out there in TV land is willing to keep the tinseled tradition alive and kicking for another generation of women to accept or reject:

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