Why Watching Beauty Pageant Films Is My Dirty Little Secret

Photo: Castle Rock/Fortis/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality
Cast your mind back to the year 2001. Miss Congeniality had finally arrived in the UK, we now knew that 25th April was in fact the perfect date and Michael Caine, who played disgraced pageant coach Victor Melling, delivered the mantra that no doubt defined the outlook of future aspiring beauty queens: "Wear the crown, be the crown, you are the crown."
You want to laugh, but you’re also not sure how seriously to take any half-joke about the superficial world of beauty pageanting, right? I’m with you. The blatant absurdity of it all and intermittent questioning of the way the contestants demonise pizza for the sake of a panel-pleasing body, for example, are two of the many things that made Miss Congeniality iconic. In fact, in the 18 years since I first watched it, the film has come to drive and define my deep, conflicted fascination with beauty pageant films and TV shows. Niche, I know. But recent releases (and my adoration of Sandra Bullock rom-com-drams) have made me think about this a lot.
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Allow me to refresh your memory. Sandra Bullock stars as Gracie Hart, a tomboyish FBI agent who has a habit of running her mouth and not quite following orders. She speaks with her mouth full, wears masculine shoes and a hearty snort accompanies her laugh. She’s the antithesis of the finely tuned restraint that a beauty queen typically radiates. Intelligence learns that a serial killer is targeting the Miss United States pageant and so Hart is sent in undercover. (A mission that she’s only assigned after the male agents have gathered around a computer screen, armed with popcorn, to scroll through photos of female agents in swimsuits to pick out who would be right for the job.)
She goes, she saves the day and she learns that, despite her original opinions, beauty pageants aren’t just about fit bodies, fake tears and the faux desire for world peace. It’s a classic Hollywood makeover story (Victor Melling and his team fix Hart’s teeth, wax her entire body and introduce her to chicken fillet inserts) merged with a "champion the underdog" narrative. It briefly introduces the unsavoury philosophies that are rooted in the demands of beauty pageants but also reminds us that there is heart, humanity and a sizeable scholarship fund on the other side of these competitions. And it glosses it all with the light comic relief needed to swallow such an absurdly captivating narrative.
Fast-forward almost two decades and we’re still following the same structure to tell beauty pageant stories. Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as highly sought-after pageant coach Vicki Ellis in her new Facebook Watch "dark comedy" series, Queen America. The first episode opens with a young woman in her teens – the current Miss Tulsa – running on a treadmill. She’s wearing her crown for the occasion and being shouted at by Vicki and her assistant. Her fierce determination to run harder is both terrifying and laughable – she’s reminded that no Miss America in history has had love handles or cellulite.
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At least, it’s funny in the sense that you think you’re in on Queen America's joke. The show is deliberately mocking the wild, superficial intensity of what we understand this strange world of competitive optics to be. It’s then concerning because that understanding of what to expect from young women putting themselves through physical and emotional hell, all to be honoured with a crown and a sash, has come from somewhere. The pressure to look a certain way (i.e. super slim with bouncy hair and a relentless smile) spreads all too easily.
Photo: Bob Mahoney/Netflix
Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston in Dumplin'
The redemptive underdog in this storyline is Samantha. She’s sweet, naïve to pageanting and knows that winning the Miss America competition is the only way she’ll be able to get to university. Vicki is eventually forced to take on Samantha as a client and it’s through their conflicting outlooks that we get the careful pro/con balance these stories need to work (though Vicki’s teenage niece who has put on weight and decided that pageants are "profoundly unimportant" is an interesting, though underused curveball).
Despite the promise of funding and education, the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about beauty pageants will always be the "beauty" part. It’s no secret that it’s a restrictive term, and what the second of this year’s pageant dramas does really well is address how it typically fails to be inclusive. Well, it does it "really well" for a light-hearted Netflix Original tackling the same topic matter that the streaming giant's earlier series Insatiable failed to get right.
Dumplin' stars Jennifer Aniston as an ex-pageant queen and director of the local Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant. Her plus-size daughter Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) is fed up of the narrow beauty standards that her mother’s pageant promotes, so she signs up as an act of protest. Joined by fellow outcasts and with the support of drag queen fairy-godmother types, she gets through the pageant with the expected family-friendly flair and finds renewed confidence in herself, despite the implied physical restrictions of traditional competitions. "Nowhere does it say 'fat girls need not apply'," Willowdean’s plus-size friend Millie, who also signs up to the pageant, announces.
But even with the sincerity of Dumplin's familiar push-pull take on pageantry, you’re still left not knowing how seriously to take the industry at the heart of these stories. In essence these shows, and pageants themselves, all discuss what a woman is meant to be. How she should look, the sort of "talents" she should have and the way she should present herself to the world for acceptance. And while there is fun to be had in the execution – beauty pageants are meant to appear inviting, over the top, glamorous and beyond our glitz-free normality – at its crux is a conversation about the prescriptive demands on women, and that conversation is only had fleetingly on screen. I have to admit: turning a small town pageant into a big budget satire only packs so much of a punch these days.
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