Beauty Pageant Gaffe

23:26 Thu 30 Aug 2007
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You’ve probably already seen the clip of Miss Teen South Carolina flubbing a map question, which went global earlier this week. In it, the beauty pageant contestant flubs a question about why 20% of Americans can’t find the US on a world map.

“Flubs” is being kind. She’s inarticulate and clearly nervous, and comes off sounding like a moron.

It’s possible that she is a moron, but the near-universal mockery makes me a little uneasy. Not for her sake, really—the fame generated by the first clip got her a second chance on the Today show, which is probably much better publicity than the pageant itself would have been, and she might be able to turn it to her advantage further.

But initially her situation struck me as a no-win situation. She’s in a contest, and the way to win is most likely not by giving a truly intelligent answer. If she had come out with “The reason 20% of Americans can’t find their own country on a world map, which is a shocking indictment of the state of our nation, is that the education system in this country is a travesty, and has been made into a travesty by a combination of neglect and deliberate mismanagement by the ruling elite, who have no desire for a population that is 100% well-educated” then I doubt she would have done any better, and not just because her answer would have been considered “radical”. No, the intelligence of such an answer would probably have been a significant handicap in that pageant.

I’m not claiming she consciously chose the course she did. But the fact that the ideal answer would be bland and not too smart is sad. I think the cultural standards that brought her, and us, to this point are tricky—intelligence, particularly in women, isn’t a big marker of attractiveness in the mainstream. There are plenty of counter-examples, but the impression I have is still that women will often feel they need to either act dumb or be dumb to attract most men. At the same time, ridiculing women (especially blondes) for being dumb is a national pastime. It seems to me that this doesn’t have the effect of cultural pressure to be smart, but to push women into walking some kind of tightrope between “too threatening” and “too stupid”.

I could be wrong about all this, particularly since I’m not really writing from experience. The women I know seem rather intelligent indeed, and I doubt very much any of them are pretending to be stupid. But those cultural pressures seem to be present, and they’re what I thought of first when I came across this clip.

Incidentally, a helpful site of maps has already sprung up, and I found this entry in particular rather amusing.

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