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Laughing at beauty queens

Consider this individual:

She has appeared on ABC’s “What Would you Do?” and is the ambassador for “Healing Hands for Haiti,” which aims to bring rehabilitation medicine to the country. She has attended Westminster College and Brigham Young University. Her profile explains that she wants to be an advocate for adoption. Her parents adopted her little brother, who was subsequently diagnosed with several medical issues, including an inoperable brain tumor. (source)

Now consider: She entered an inoffensive competition, where under the gaze of an unknown and massive multitude, she was asked this question:

“A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does it say about society?”

Marissa Powell, Miss Utah in the Miss America 2013 competition, had mere seconds to answer, no preparation. She thus fumbled. This wasn’t an examiner asking a doctoral candidate about her paper; this wasn’t a teacher testing a student who was supposed to have prepared. This was a beauty pageant contestant* thrust into answering a difficult – though important – question of economics and gender inequality.

She fumbled. And the Internet was provided with yet another plaything, yet another tool to throw into the laughing factory. Look how silly she is! Look how stupid this dumb American beauty pageant person is! Wow!

Deadspin’s Timothy Burke posted an unpleasant and mean-spirited response from the film Billy Madison:

What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

How is this response proportional to her fumbling, under a glaring spotlight – metaphorically and probably literally – and with a sudden large question? Why are we OK with such meanness toward someone who appears to be a good person and someone who maybe many of us would respect?

(The Billy Madison quotation might be given more acceptance if it was, say, in response to an Internet comment – instead of to a young person suddenly forced to answer a vague-ish question. However, even if it was to a comment, I think this response itself would be unhelpful and merely mocking.)

Why have we allowed people on our screens to be seen as automatic village idiots, worthy of derision and scorn, with our vulture-like gaffaws and mockery of their character fading out, as we move on to the next victim? A young, inexperienced person made a mistake – like many of us young, inexperienced people – only the wonder/horror of the internet makes her fumbling viral, makes her words “create education better” eternal (until we move on to the next village idiot for the week).

I think we should stop tweeting links to it, stop watching it, stop laughing at someone who briefly messed up (I realise I’m doing this but hopefully you understand why). Mistakes should not be thorns, but rungs in a ladder toward improvement. But by trending and buzzing and tweeting and liking and redditing someone’s brief moment of mistaken response, keeping that alive rather than anything else of Powell – her work, her experience of adoption (and loss), her parents moral actions that inspired her – we remove her personhood; we think of her as yet another Silly American Beauty who Said Something Funny, instead of a person who studied and has actually tried helping others (adoption is an important issue after all).

Don’t send that link. Don’t laugh at someone making a mistake. Treat yourself and others better than the Internet so commonly would. It is we who make the decision to put this person up as the next target for our mockery darts and character barbs.

There are enough actual bad people to hate, enough actual stupid and suffering policies to fight – which can be fought with the tools of mockery and derision. Better these than briefly confused individuals, who are suddenly put on a spotlight so their mistakes will be digitally engraved for longer than is necessary.


I initially attributed the Billy Madison quotation to Burke until a Twitter follower corrected me. My apologies to Burke. I’ve not seen Billy Madison (and there wasn’t an indication that it was from a/that film).


* This doesn’t mean beauty pageant contestants can’t answer such questions properly, that they are incapable, or stupid. This sentence is merely description, not derision.

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