It was the great and ghastly P.T. Barnum who was the first to find profit in a beauty pageant. The impresario, who once stitched the head of an ape to the body of a fish and called it a mermaid, promised “something for everyone”. He delivered so well, a psychological glitch was named in his honour. The Barnum Effect is what happens when someone believes that a very broad statement, such as that we might find in astrology or the discredited Myers-Briggs test, applies to them very personally. You can believe that a dead fish-ape is a mermaid, that your destiny is written in a personality test or, in fact, that the Miss America pageant can speak meaningfully to real experience.
This is the generally held view of an audience dazzled by a woman who won the hearts of judges with a plastic cup, and of the minds of the progressive internet with her statements on intimate partner violence.
Before considering the civic esteem in which the new title-holder is held, it is certainly worth watching her crowd-pleasing talent. Kira Kazantsev sang the Pharrell Williams uber-hit Happy while hitting a red plastic drinking cup — a technique made popular by a song-meme in 2009. In meme terms, this is about a half century ago. It’s an awfully long road from Reddit to Atlantic City, and this One Girl One Cup performance was hardly current. But who cares, because Kazantsev, one of a very few humans camp and confident enough to sit on the floor barefoot in a sleeveless jumpsuit with spangled shoulder pads while banging a red plastic cup, is adorable.
She is adorable, and being adorable is the most important work of Miss America, whose latest outing paid kitsch homage to the sweetness of its girls. It was actually pretty droll and intentionally gaudy. Sure, the show rated poorly on US network television, but Twitter loved the tanlines, the red cup and Miss Ohio’s ventriloquism with an intensity usually reserved for events as important as the World Cup or Sharknado 2.
But Miss America can likely be no more than adorable, despite efforts in these post-tiara hours and in the pageant itself to elevate her to an international importance.
Kazantsev, let it be said, is no ventriloquist’s dummy and has this week spoken well to broadcaster NPR on the topic of intimate partner violence. The New York representative, herself the survivor of an abusive relationship, answered the persistence of the rhetorical question “why doesn’t she just leave?”. She said: “Every woman is an expert in her own case, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that lead to a woman staying with her abuser.”
This, of course, is a first-class response to a low assumption, and we could not have hoped for better. But a problem arises when we begin to suspect that such statements have a positive impact. They do not do harm — unless, of course, they would have us believe that they actually do much good.
This is not, by any means, to urge silence on a serious topic that demands urgent address, and it is not to suggest that frank accounts by survivors, particularly eloquent ones, do not have a certain value. It is, however, to question what is now seen as the responsibility of celebrities (or demi-celebrities or individuals) to represent the concerns of large numbers of people. It is to ask if the fact of Miss America talking can ever be, as the LA Times would have it, “compelling”. Thinkprogress called Kazantsev’s a “bold statement”. HuffPo said that the “proto-feminist” nature of the pageant made the clear statement possible and powerful.
“The thing is, we don’t need to, and we cannot take everybody seriously.”
It is now taken as read that the experience of inequality or misfortune is best discussed by someone who has experienced it. There needs to be a single advocate by which news and entertainment media can identify a “cause”, and little discussion seems possible without its attendant personal story. Death by suicide or the recovery from drugs or the divorce or crash diet of a famous person is almost always constructive. The personal narrative has become the dominant means of media discussion of inequality or misfortune of any kind.
If this happened some of the time and not most of the time, it might be OK. If the accounts of misfortune were just occasionally and not overwhelmingly couched in the terms of an individual’s life, they might serve their ostensible goal of social change. But you don’t get widespread change with an almost unwavering attention fixed to the individual. And you don’t get influential policy discussion from celebrities or from Miss America.
This is not because the Misses America are incapable of sensible conversation — clearly Kazantsev is, although we cannot be so sure about Miss Ohio. But it is because the entire delight, like much of celebrity, is founded on spun sugar. I mean, come on. This is a competition in which women basted with chicken tikka spray tan wear bikinis with heels. This is a competition in which Miss Oklahoma says of her frock in the evening wear parade, “I think this gown accentuates my giraffe-like qualities”. This is a competition whose losing contestants are told by their host “I’ll see you all soon on The Bachelor”.
If you have a partiality to camp, the anachronistic glitz of Miss America is great fun. That it can provide anything more useful than that is unlikely. But, like everybody else on the planet, Miss America wants to be taken seriously.
Contestants are now required to have more socially responsible “platforms” than in the past; where once ladies represented charities that provided knitted clothes to elderly toy dogs, they are now likely to support anorexia foundations or, like this year’s winner, domestic violence awareness. The questions this year have become much graver in nature than the previous “what would you do to achieve world peace?” sort, and finalists were required to talk about Islamic State beheadings, violence and a range of other hot topics guaranteed to end any dinner party early.
Like the social media formats that supported it best, Miss America is made of fast about-turns where we learn in one moment that Miss Florida’s favourite food is waffles and in another that one in four women is likely to be subjected to domestic violence.
Statistics about widespread brutality are difficult to grasp in the best of contexts and have a breadth and gravity no easier to grasp when you’re still wondering whether the young lady from the Sunshine State prefers her waffles with butter or syrup. Serving up serious issues is just not possible in taffeta.
This doesn’t mean the issues are not serious, and it doesn’t mean the ladies of Miss America are not capable of understanding and feeling the impact of their chosen platforms deeply. It just means that they, like celebrities, are just not terribly good at communicating serious issues because we are unable to take any of them seriously.
The thing is, we don’t need to, and we cannot take everybody seriously. There are those events, like Miss America, and those individuals, like the girls in the ashes of all 50 states, who are just doomed to the light. We can never be convinced of their darkness, and a pageant winner, however brave and well-spoken, was never intended to be “real”. It’s like when Sean Penn talks about international relations or Beyonce talks about whatever social issue it is that Beyonce talks about. It is likely sincere, but everyone just comes across a bit like Bono.
Personal celebrity stories might hold our interest more firmly in the instant of their telling, but they dissolve the minute they conclude. In a time where light entertainment like Miss America takes on the appearance of seriousness and more serious media take on the appearance of lightness, it is uncertain where real and lasting conversations can take place.
I don’t know. I’m just pretty sure it’s not in the same hour of TV that has a gal from Ohio singing Supercalifragilistic with her hand up the back of a doll.