On Miss Congeniality

Miss Congeniality is a film I have multiple times, due to reruns on major TV networks. According to The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild by Sarah J. Douglas:

In Miss Congeniality (2000), Sandra Bullock plays the asexual FBI agent Gracie Hart, who carries herself like a teamster and dresses up like one of the Beastie Boys. Everything about her screams “antifeminine”: the stringy strands of hair hanging in her face, her unruly eyebrows, her equally disheveled apartment with it’s unmade bed and, the centerpiece of the décor, an Everlast punching bad hanging in the living room, which she regularly punches the crap out of. She snorts when she laughs and, even worse, eats like a guy, chewing with her mouth open and chomping down a huge hamburger for lunch instead of a ladylike salad. She is completely devoted to her work and has no personal life. Her colleagues refer to her as Hart, not Gracie. This is the inevitable outcome of feminism if taken to it’s logical conclusions: deliberate unattractive women who repel men.

Because of a threat to disrupt the Miss United States Pageant, Hart has to go undercover as one of the contestants: this requires a major, major makeover, not least of Hart’s own attitudes towards beauty pageants. She refers to contestants as “bikini stuffers,” and objects to have parade around “like some airhead bimbo…and all she wants is world peace.” Hart tells her co-worker, Eric Matthew (Benjamin Bratt), “What could possibly motivate anyone to enter a beauty pageant is beyond me…It’s like feminism never happened…to think any woman could do this is catering to some misogynist Neanderthal mentality.” In other words, Hart could have been right there on the front line of the 1968 demonstrations against the Miss America pageant, when feminists hurled hair curlers, steno pads, and bras into “Freedom Trash Cans.”

Victor Melling (Michael Caine) is the unlucky bastard who has to turn Hart into a lady. As soon as he lays eyes on her he announces, “If you are Gracie Hart I quit here and now…there’s no way on earth I can make this woman ready in two days.” Nonetheless, he begins his instructions, telling her, “Miss United States if always polite and well-spoken” and that ladies don’t walk, they glide. (When Victor sees Hart stomp down the street he moans, “Oh my God, I haven’t seen a walk like that since Jurassic Park.”) As Hart and the FBI, accompanied by a SWAT team of makeover artists, fly to the airport hanger where she will be transformed, she watches footage of previous pageants and mimics the contestants’ exaggerated crying when they win: “Oh, look, she’s going to cry again,” she tells Victor, “If I only had a brain.”

After an all-night procedure in which Hart is subjected to multiple facials, hair treatments, and the waxing of almost every part of her body, she emerges from the hanger. As “Mustang Sally” plays on the soundtrack, and the camera grinds down to a slow motion, out she comes in a skintight pale blue minidress, spike heels she can barely walk in, and gorgeous hair flowing as perfectly as in any Pantene commercial. Even though the makeover sequence parodies the ridiculous lengths which women had to go to become beautiful, this shot, and Eric’s incredulous and admiring reaction to the transformation, make it clear that she has become gorgeous-and whatever it took, it was worth it.

As Victor continues to train her to compete in the pageant, Hart-renamed the more girly Gracie Lou-resists. “I am an FBI agent, I’m not a performing monkey in heels,” she insists. But Victor has a critique of her life: “You’re also a person and an incomplete one at that. In place of friends and relationships, you have sarcasm and a gun.” Victor has clearly hit a nerve, and Gracie responds defensively, “I don’t have relationships because I don’t want them and I don’t have friends because I work 24/7, and you have no idea why I am the way I am.” She later insists to Eric, “I am the job,” and admits she has had, like, two dates in ten years.

Nonetheless, one of the great pleasures of the movie is watching Gracie Lou bring some distinctly nongirly elements into the pageant. Gracie is juxtaposed with Miss Rhode Island, a stereotypical giggly blond airhead with a high pitch voice-a real ditz. When asked what her idea of a perfect date is, she responds, “I’d have to say April Twenty-fifth.” In contrast to all the other contestants who say that the most important thing our society needs is world peace, Gracie says the most important thing is “harsher punishment for parole violators.” (Confronted with the audience’s stunned silence, Gracie hastily adds, “And world peace.”) In defiance of the self-starvation ethos of the competition, Gracie gets the women to indulge in pizza and beer. Her talent-possibly the high point of the film-comes when she demonstrates self-defense techniques women can use against assaulters. So Gracie is not merely dragged kicking and screaming into the zone of femininity; the girly world would also get an injection of feminism.

In the end though (this is Hollywood, after all), the film abandons its critique of the beauty pageant as a retrograde objectification of women. It also abandons feminism and instead repudiates it. In the interview part of the competition, the pageant’s founder, Miss Mourningside (Candace Bergen) asks Gracie, “There are many who consider the Miss United States pageant to be outdated and antifeminist. What would you say to that?”

“Well, I would have to say I used to be one of them,” Gracie responds. “And then I came here and I realized these women are smart, terrific people who are just trying to make a difference in the world. And we’ve become really good friends…And for me this experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.” What is odd about this assertion is that we have already seen some catty, competitive remarks among the contestants and we’ve seen Gracie having fun with them in a bar; but we’ve not heard any of them talk to her about exactly how they hope to make a difference in the world or what their other interests, besides makeup, are.

At the end of the film, Gracie is named “Miss Congeniality” for being the “nicest, sweetest, coolest girl at the pageant,” and she acknowledges how honored she is, adding, “And, I really do want world peace.” So “world peace” is not some packaged, calculated cliché, one of the few safe social goals for hyperfeminized women to articulate, but rather a genuine, lofty ideal that the pageant contestants truly share. Gracie has seen the error of her old, bigoted, narrow-minded feminist ways, which dismissed beauty pageants as objectifying meat markets and their contestants as shallow bimbos. In the end, then, feminism itself is sexist, because it stereotypes certain women and denies them their full range of choices. And girliness is also essential to heterosexual love-Gracie having found that she could have Pantene-style hair and still be an FBI agent, gets her guy, Eric.

According to The New York Times review:

Midway through ”Miss Congeniality,” Special Agent Gracie Hart of the F.B.I. (Sandra Bullock) baits her co-worker Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) with a sing-song schoolyard taunt: ”You want to kiss me. You want to hug me. You want to love me.”

This might summarize Ms. Bullock’s curious relationship with her audience. We do want to love her, but she doesn’t always make it easy. Her appeal is paradoxical: the more aggressively she flaunts her awkward, abrasive qualities, the more winning she is. And, conversely, whenever she sheds her ugly-duckling feathers, she sloughs off much of her charm.

”Miss Congeniality,” to mix zoological metaphors, is a standard-issue fish-out-of-water comedy, with Ms. Bullock as the fish. Gracie, slovenly, career-obsessed and barely socialized, has been placed on desk duty after botching an undercover assignment involving Russian mobsters, who have become Hollywood’s acceptable ethnic bad guys of the moment. Before long, an enigmatic terrorist known as the Citizen announces by cryptic fax that he plans to disrupt the Miss United States pageant. A computerized paper-doll simulation shows Gracie to be the only agent in the bureau who looks good enough in a bathing suit to pass as one of the contestants.

The problem of course is that in spite of her name, she’s spectacularly graceless, utterly lacking in the poised femininity that the pageant celebrates. Luckily, Michael Caine is on hand in the role of Victor Melling, a disgraced beauty consultant who is hired as a taxpayer-financed Pygmalion.

Mr. Caine, who performed a similar service for Julie Walters in the melodrama ”Educating Rita” some years ago, gives one of his brisk, understated character performances. He infuses the part with a hint of pathos — here is an aging man who has devoted his life to the cause of female beauty — and adds a saving touch of lechery (directed not at Gracie, whom he finds unbearably vulgar, but at the handsome Agent Matthews). In the film’s funniest sequence, Melling oversees a heroic government-supervised makeover, performed in an empty airplane hangar by a crack team of hairdressers, make-up daubers and experts in the art of depilation.

A few other supporting performances add comic spark to a movie that otherwise seems happily, deliberately second-rate, as if its ideal audience consisted of weary airline passengers. (It’s the kind of movie that would seem like a pleasant surprise in a cramped coach at 35,000 feet.)

Candice Bergen is on hand as the pageant’s organizer, a woman so brittle and tightly wound that a vigorous sneeze might snap off her nose. Her life, she tells Gracie, has become a crusade against ”feminists, intellectuals and ugly women”: epithets she seems to think apply especially well to undercover F.B.I. agents. William Shatner, relishing his newfound career as an icon of self-parody, has too few scenes as the contest’s woozy host.

The picture runs its course smoothly enough, with a few amusing scenes and a whodunit plot that’s mildly suspenseful, provided you don’t pay very close attention. But these days it seems no Hollywood comedy, however silly, can roll off the assembly line unless a heartfelt message about personal growth and self-discovery has been sprayed over it like rustproofing on a new car. By impersonating Miss New Jersey, Gracie discovers in herself the womanliness she had hitherto suppressed.

In her final speech at the pageant, she pays earnest tribute to the valiant women she (and the movie) previously mocked as bimbos and airheads. And of course once the tomcatting Agent Matthews catches sight of her in her clingy gowns and tasteful swimwear, he wants to love her and kiss her and hug her. And why not? She embodies this year’s movie ideal of womanhood: a martial arts expert who looks fabulous in tight clothes and keeps a .45 strapped to her thigh.

The appeal of this fantasy, to men and women alike, is clear enough, though the version offered by ”Miss Congeniality” pales beside the candy-colored mayhem of ”Charlie’s Angels,” the elegance of ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or the integrity of the unjustly neglected ”Girlfight.”

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