The ridicule that rained down on Miss Utah for botching “the final answer” in the recent Miss USA beauty pageant is surely one of the most extreme cases of overkill in the past few hundred years or so. Within minutes, video went viral of her awkward attempt to provide a 10-second sound-bite solution to low pay for sole-earning females. She did her best to deal with a badly phrased question, but her struggle, which was inevitable given the constraints of the Donald Trump-orchestrated event, saturated social media and broadcast television.
Even sports-radio chuckleheads got into the act, playing her answer over and over, hooting and sniggering with every replay of “we have to create education better.” One wag ventured the theory that Miss Utah was actually the love child of George W. Bush, the universally acknowledged master of innovative syntax and critically injured grammar.
So pervasive is the video that it’s hardly necessary to give a verbatim of what Miss Utah said. Such stumbles are now a regular feature of beauty pageants, and they all have a generic quality: the tortured syntax, the panic in the eyes, the heart-sinking descent into gibberish. Part of the fun for viewers is the obvious discomfort of the beauty contestant and her dawning realization that she is messing up most royally.
The most spectacular verbal catastrophe in the history of beauty pageants occurred when Miss Teenage South Carolina tackled the pitiful lack of geographical knowledge among American schoolchildren, rattling on about U.S. Americans, The Iraq, as well as that mysterious continent known as The Such As. Miss South Carolina got nowhere near as much ridicule as Miss Utah, no doubt because there was no panic behind the eyes; instead, the statuesque blonde forged ahead with the bland confidence that she was hitting it out of the park. Such as.
Given the regularity with which beauty contestants screw up when they step up to the mic, what accounts for the monumental piling-on experienced by Miss Utah, who has now zoomed to the top of the list of All-Time Beauty Bimbos? Part of the reason lies in the ubiquity of media, of course, with the concomitant license it affords for anonymous cheap shots and instant merriment.
It could be that open season was declared on Miss Utah precisely because she was Miss Utah. Had Miss Nevada or Miss New Jersey, say, blundered in similar fashion, would the ridicule have been quite as gleeful? It’s not just that Utah sounds funny; it seems to be a shorthand for hicksville and dopey na´veté. Bob Hope, or some other comedian, used to get easy laughs in a routine about the Miss America contest won by the “roller-skating violinist from Utah.”
Beauty pageants are themselves a rich source of humor, apart from the gaffes or pratfalls (nothing funnier than a young lady in high heels and a bikini taking a tumble). But behind the unseemly delight taken in the humiliation of any aspirant to a beauty crown lies a darker and more malignant need in the hearts of the audience. And that is the need not just to humiliate a beauty queen, but to destroy her.
The need to destroy reveals itself most obviously in the alacrity with which the sticks and stones are wielded and tossed. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon, even, or especially, the grinning high priests of our society, the TV anchor boys and talk-show impresarios. It’s not just a matter of nerds retaliating against all the pretty girls who wouldn’t give them the time of day, or the revenge of the envious wallflowers sitting it out while the best-looking girl was crowned queen of the high school prom.
More darkly, the humiliation of beauty queens is the modern re-enactment of virgin sacrifice, the ancient ceremony by which benighted cultures pacified the gods and ensured that unpredictable fertility came full cycle and murderous Winter once again gave way to the fecundities of Spring. We know better now than to believe that taking a knife to a beautiful virgin will keep the crops a-comin’.
But old beliefs die hard, especially those so sanctioned by centuries of ceremony that they hitch a ride on our DNA. It’s massively unfair that Miss Utah must endure a ritual sacrifice, but unlike victims of old, our own beautiful virgin will surely rise again and find a calling where her brains, which by all accounts she has a good supply of, will facilitate and even trump her beauty.
D.P. Sorensen writes a satire column for City Weekly.