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Jun 17 2013

Quit picking on Marissa Powell!

All right, as we’re seeing splashed all over the news now, Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, fum-fuhed a question about resolving income inequities. Here she goes:

And I say, so what? No one expects a dissertation in the feel-good blurb you’re allowed to give in a beauty pageant. She clearly hadn’t thought about the question before, and was simply floundering to come up with an answer…and the one she stumbled out wasn’t inherently bad. She’s trying to recommend education as a solution.

So, not an inherently wrong answer, poorly expressed, and contrived on the fly by a young woman who wasn’t really prepared for it. I dare any of the people who are dressing her down to get on the air before a national audience, get a question on a subject they’ve never really thought about, and answer it as well.

What’s really going on here is an effort to find supporting evidence for a bias that women in beauty pageants are stupid — and the media are happily jumping on one instance of a clumsy, misspoken answer as confirmation.

46 comments

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  1. 1
    erichoug

    I always thought this XKCD summed up a lot of things quite nicely.

  2. 2
    Draken

    It’s nothing compared to what would have happened if she’d proposed a redistribution of wealth.

  3. 3
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Ouch. I feel for her. I can’t imagine being given a crazy tough question like that, that I’m not prepared to answer, and in such a way to maintain the elegance and poise you’re supposed to in order to win that fashion show.

    If I were up there I’d be half-tempted to say “goddamn that’s a hard question, can you give me a few minutes to research the topic area, cause I’m seriously not qualified to answer it right at the moment without some citations to back up the facts.”

  4. 4
    maudell

    I think it’s broader than beauty pageants, it’s ‘proof’ that conventionally attractive women are empty inside. In other words, if you’re not considered attractive, you don’t exist but you may have a personality, if you are, it must be all you’ve got. Just another way to demean women for being women.

    It reminds me of some of the reactions to McGinn’s sexual harassment (the philosopher who was sending hand job e-mails to his student). The woman remains anonymous, but many people went and tried to figure out who she was so they could humiliate her publicly. They focused on the one they found “the sexiest,” and the conclusion was – I kid you not – that she must have lured him sexually because women this attractive cannot be intelligent enough to be philosophy PhDs.

    Wonderful unfalsifiable theory, it must be her because she’s attractive (we don’t know if it’s her), she can’t have been harassed ‘for real’ because she’s too attractive. Hot woman is dumb and dumb is hot woman. Logic!

  5. 5
    DaveL

    If beauty pageant contestants were able to sit down and give a TED talk extemporaneously, on any subject we happened to put before them, I think it would be rather beside the point to give the winner a scholarship.

  6. 6
    maudell

    @ 3.
    Also, I think that answers considered ‘feminist’ are pretty lethal to women in these competitions. So she couldn’t support actual wage equality, the only ‘proper’ answer is a feel good/meritocracy/American dream fluff.

  7. 7
    smhll

    In about five or maybe six minutes one of your critics is going to suggest that the only reason you would blog anything nice about her is that you are trying to get her to sleep with you…

  8. 8
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Don’t these kind of things have something like “questions you can expect and prepare answers for”? You know, not the exact questions, but some idea about what often comes up.
    My guess : she prepared herself a bit, then got a question she didn’t really know how to answer and tried to fumble with semi-related things that came to her mind at the moment.

    Have you ever prepared for a test, and then when asked a question managed to mess up and mix three different definitions only one of which was somewhat related to the actual question? No? Then it’s just me.

  9. 9
    roro80

    She flubbed it, sure, and that’s a good reason she didn’t win the crown (not fumbling is one of the criteria of the competition), but it certainly doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her or her intellect. It definitely isn’t an excuse or example of the stupid hawt chick stereotype. What this points to is the utter glee we as a culture take in witnessing the failure of a woman, particularly if we can ogle her at the same time. Gross.

    @6 maudell — that depends strongly on the judges, whom any contestant at this level of competition would have researched.

  10. 10
    Lynna, OM

    Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, went to Brigham Young University in Utah. Some ex-mormons have postulated that she flubbed the question, in part, because she had been brought up to think men as leaders, as holders of the mormon priesthood, and as head of households. She would also have been exposed to considerable pressure to think that the best role for woman would be “Mother of Zion,” that is, staying home and having many babies.

    This belief system may have caused some cognitive dissonance when when she was asked to comment on income inequality.

    Utah is one of the worst states when it comes to disparity between male and female income levels. One example: the largest group of female lawyers in Utah earned less than $40,000 a year, while the largest group of men made more than $175,000 annually. Link.

    No way of knowing for sure, but Ms. Powell’s upbringing may have made that particular question more difficult to answer.

  11. 11
    Kevin

    I don’t know anything about the “controversy” because I don’t watch beauty scholarship pageants. Nor do I particularly want to know, so pardon me for not listen to her embarrass herself.

    But I’m curious about what the feminist response to these kinds of events is supposed to be. I’m looking at the freeze-framed picture of the woman in question, and it looks to me as if she’s had several major plastic surgeries and maybe some minor “procedures” as well.

    That nose is not her nose. Her back molars have been removed to achieve that “hollowed out” look. There’s more silicone in her lips than there are in her breast implants. I’m thinking there’s more than a little Botox going on there as well. And that’s most likely not her hair, either — or most of it. (Note; I don’t object to the stage make-up, partly because it washes off.)

    All for the purpose of winning a beauty scholarship contest? She’s the walking-talking embodiment of “objectification”. And, I would assume (unless she was kidnapped and brainwashed) she did this willingly. Along with the rest of the participants in this made-for-TV special.

    Is this what’s considered beautiful scholarship worthy these days? How much money has been put into the pockets of the plastic surgeons and the makeup artists and the dress designers and the personal trainers and all the rest that could have gone to … well … scholarships?

    Should we be supportive of her decision-making and that of her co-contestants? I’m trying to wrap my brain around this.

  12. 12
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    What Beatrice said @ #8. Anyone can fumble a little while on the spot, and that’s a hell of a complex topic.

    But people really love the “attractive=stupid” thing, because misogyny. Even if you luck out naturally and also have the skills to conform to the beauty standards, acknowledging that, or that you might also be good at other things is unthinkable. The best that can be hoped for is a decorative butt of jokes (that of course you couldn’t understand). When I worked in a bookstore, I overheard a customer telling my boss that I must have been hired because I was a “Barbie doll”, and he actually refused to believe my employer, who’d known me since I was 11, that I actually am smart as hell and know and love books.

  13. 13
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    So we have:

    40% of households’ primary earners are women
    Women continue to earn less than men

    What’s she even supposed to be addressing here? Unequal pay, or a perception that men should be the primary earners? Related subjects, sure, but I’d sure as hell not want to have to give a 30-second précis tying them together, unprepared and in the spotlight.

  14. 14
  15. 15
    Forbidden Snowflake

    Kevin:

    That nose is not her nose.

    Whose nose is it then?

  16. 16
    Lynna, OM

    Some mormons are dissing Marissa Powell for entirely different reasons:

    She should of lost simply because of her dress. Highly inappropriate for a BYU student.

    Deseret News link. The quote above is from readers’ comments below the online article.

  17. 17
    anteprepro

    Hell, I couldn’t even answer this question cogently given an hour to write out an essay, let alone if I was just asked for it off-the-cuff on fucking stage. And this is from someone who actually has had a few sizeable discussions on the subject. I doubt very much that the people who guffaw about her fumbling could do much better either. I mean, really.

  18. 18
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Daz,

    Yeah, that too.
    One could go with challenging the excuse that men earn more because they are the primary earners in their families…. but I’m not sure how that would work as an answer to the question “what does that say about society?”.

  19. 19
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I assume “[American] society is fucked up and should be nuked from orbit” probably wouldn’t have gone over very well.

  20. 20
    The Mellow Monkey

    I’m looking at the freeze-framed picture of the woman in question, and it looks to me as if she’s had several major plastic surgeries and maybe some minor “procedures” as well.

    The things you’re describing about her face largely look to be the result of contouring makeup, which can be used to greatly alter the appearance of facial features. Here’s a particularly famous example of contouring. Pay particular attention to how narrow the nose and hollow the cheeks become with the makeup. Pictures of Miss Utah without that heavy makeup don’t look much like the above freeze frame.

    Now whether she’s had plastic surgery or not is something that could be discussed in the larger context of body policing, of course. For example, your post is an example of body policing.

  21. 21
    Doc Bill

    I thought she did OK, all things considered, crazy question, pressure of the pageant and all that.

    My favorite part was when she paused and smiled broadly. I can only imagine she was thinking, “OMG, I’m going all Miss South Carolina here!” and then stumbled across the finish line.

    Anybody who has ad libbed in public knows the feeling of starting a sentence then forgetting where you were going with it. When that happens to me I stop, turn, point, and shout, “Look, a squirrel!”

  22. 22
    Kevin

    How is that “body policing”? And what in the world is “body policing” anyway? I’m not writing a ticket nor arresting her. I think you just made that term up. Like I said, she obviously has done those things to herself willingly. Whether or not people find it attractive is a whole other issue. If I had said “I think she looks ugly with that surgery”, that would be a different issue. But I didn’t. I expressed an entirely different concern.

    It’s whether someone should be “forced” to modify themselves in this way just for the sake of less than 5 minutes on stage in front of a national TV audience and a <2% chance at a cash prize. "Forced" in the sense of if you don't conform to these particular standards, you are SOOO not going to be Miss Utah and wouldn't be on that stage in the first place.

    Is this kind of pageant a good thing? Especially if it encourages objectification? I don't think so. But if that means I'm the "body police"…well, then, let me think about it… Nope. Still think it's a bad idea.

    @15: That nose is right out of the plastic surgeon's catalog. Item 101B — straight, thin nose. Costs about $5,000 to $10,000, depending on where it's done and who the surgeon is. If my niece had that amount of money, she wouldn't be pulling 12-hour shifts at the McDonald's between semesters of college.

    Add in all the other out-of-pocket expenses that go into the pageant system, and you've built yourself a pretty nice nest egg. For education, travel, whatever.

  23. 23
    Fionnabhair

    Speaking off-the-cuff is hard as it is. I’m a reasonably good public speaker and I’m not prone to nervousness in front of an audience, but even then it can take me a little bit of time to collect my thoughts and say something that sounds intelligent. She had, what, 30 second to give a response? I’d say she did alright, considering the time constraints, that it’s a tough question, and that she needs to give an answer that’s more or less politically neutral. I mean, I might say that the level of income disparity is because as a society, we devalue women’s work, especially in professions that are typically or stereotypically held by women. Assuming I hadn’t been booed off the stage by this point, I might go on to say how the problem is even worse for women of colour, women who are not able-bodied, etc etc. It’s really hard to give a safe answer to a question like this, and I think she would have been criticized no matter what she said. Currently, she’s being criticized for flubbing the question; had she given a more polished-sounding response, she’d probably face criticism for the content of her reply. Women can’t win.

  24. 24
    anteprepro

    I assume “[American] society is fucked up and should be nuked from orbit” probably wouldn’t have gone over very well.

    Since that’s never going to happen but I would love it if someone actually did make that proposal, may I propose Miss Nihilism pageants?

    How is that “body policing”? And what in the world is “body policing” anyway? I’m not writing a ticket nor arresting her. I think you just made that term up.

    You don’t know what “body policing” is but you are sure it doesn’t exist. Profound.
    (29.6 thousand results on google for the term means she probably didn’t make it up.)

    It’s whether someone should be “forced” to modify themselves in this way just for the sake of less than 5 minutes on stage in front of a national TV audience and a <2% chance at a cash prize. "Forced" in the sense of if you don't conform to these particular standards, you are SOOO not going to be Miss Utah and wouldn't be on that stage in the first place.

    Yeah, well, ya see:
    Your first post made it clear that you thought these kinds of modifications are bad. Maybe that should be up for the women to decide?

    It is entirely possible that the women in these pageants want to get these treatments for reasons other than just competing in the pageant. Maybe that should be up for the women to decide?

    It is entirely possible to compete in these pageants without such treatments and is entirely possible that the treatments will run afoul of people like yourself and make it so that they have less/no chance. I don’t think there is an inherent push towards cosmetic surgery as much incredibly rigid standards of what is considered beauty (i.e. body policing!) and women viewing cosmetic surgery as one of many methods to approach that standard. An issue that, perhaps, the women should decide?

    Though pageantry is often incredibly shaped by patriarchal ideals, do you know who should get to decide whether or not involving themselves in pageantry is a good idea?

  25. 25
    The Mellow Monkey

    Like I said, she obviously has done those things to herself willingly. Whether or not people find it attractive is a whole other issue. If I had said “I think she looks ugly with that surgery”, that would be a different issue. But I didn’t. I expressed an entirely different concern.

    What you expressed was a dehumanizing description of a person from a freeze frame picture you saw on YouTube. She has not obviously had those things done to herself, because your fantasies about her pulling teeth out of her jaw to make her cheeks hollow are based on the fact that you are apparently unfamiliar with a thing called blush. Second picture down, without the heavy makeup. Wow, did her teeth grow back?

    Holy shit, people! Makeup adds contours to face: NEWS AT ELEVEN.

    You can actually criticize the pageant system without making it all about alterations to a young woman’s body that you have imagined. You can talk about objectification without engaging in it yourself by calling someone’s living flesh “not hers.” You CAN do these things. Instead, you decided to discuss her body in graphic detail, literally dehumanizing by implying that a surgically altered body–if she has had surgery–is no longer “hers.”

  26. 26
    anteprepro

    I think it is pretty clear that hhe should have said “Eat the Rich”.

  27. 27
    Mike

    I gotta say that in all my years I’ve never met a woman of any age that didn’t have an opinion on any kind of sex equality, be it paychecks or otherwise. Discarding the fact that poise is a hallmark in these contests there should have been at least an inkling that she has an actual opinion on the subject.

  28. 28
    anteprepro

    I gotta say that in all my years I’ve never met a woman of any age that didn’t have an opinion on any kind of sex equality, be it paychecks or otherwise.

    *Grits teeth*
    That’s one hell of a dog whistle.

  29. 29
    johnradke

    How is that “body policing”? And what in the world is “body policing” anyway?

    I am actually sort of in awe at the juxtaposition of these two sentences.

  30. 30
    Howard Bannister

    How is that “body policing”? And what in the world is “body policing” anyway? I’m not writing a ticket nor arresting her. I think you just made that term up.

    Yeah, because there’s no tool for quickly checking the definitions of unfamiliar terms that come up here. Certainly nothing that could be said to be at your fingertips.

  31. 31
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Kevin @ #22: You actually think that because you’ve never heard the (extremely common and basic) term “body policing”, that it must not exist. And somehow, you couldn’t google and save yourself the embarrassment.

    But then you’re also the sort of dude who thinks he is all-knowing on the subject of female presentation, but doesn’t know what makeup is, or that contouring is a thing. So maybe you’re just really into embarrassing yourself?

  32. 32
    Jadehawk

    And what in the world is “body policing” anyway? I’m not writing a ticket nor arresting her. I think you just made that term up.

    I don’t know if you know this, Kevind dear, but we have this thing called the internet, and on the internet there’s this thing called google.
    http://bit.ly/11L3dBP

  33. 33
    Jadehawk

    as for the handwringing about beauty pageants… here’s the short version.

    do such contests support the patriarchy?
    yup. but so does wearing makeup/heels; accepting the definition of some things as “feminine” and some things as “masculine”; buying into femmephobia; etc.

    did she freely chose this or was she brainwashed?
    what is “freely chose” in this context? She didn’t chose her desires that led her to make the choice to participate, any more than you chose your desires. we’re all “brainwashed” by the societies we grow up with, and more or less to the same degree, too. Desires are created in us by external and internal causes. (you don’t want people to have desires that lead them to perform in beauty pageants, you’ll have to change the world to stop creating such desires; good luck with that, and good luck trying that without falling into femmephobia and pretty-vs-smart dichotomies), so she’s doing what she’s doing as an act of agency.

    Should we support what she’s doing?
    The first part of feminist activism is to create more opportunities for women to exercise their agency; especially when it’s about their selves (minds and bodies), even when they’re doing something you disapprove of.
    The second part is to change society in such a way that desires that support the patriarchy either no longer support the patriarchy, or are created in our society much less often (or not at all)
    If you can’t do the second part without fucking up the first part (aka throwing certain groups of women under the bus in the name of progress), don’t do it.

  34. 34
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Jadehawk @ #33: I love this comment so very much.

  35. 35
    roro80

    @ 11

    But I’m curious about what the feminist response to these kinds of events is supposed to be.

    Well, feminists aren’t a monolith, but I’d say most wouldn’t jump straight to a puerile and creepy criticism of every aspect of a particular woman’s physiognomy…

  36. 36
    roro80

    If you can’t do the second part without fucking up the first part (aka throwing certain groups of women under the bus in the name of progress), don’t do it.

    Totally awesome.

  37. 37
    Akira MacKenzie

    Ms. Powell was certainly more articulate than I have been in that situation. I can barely string two words together verbally during the best situations. I tend to communicate better by writing than by speaking.

  38. 38
    crocodoc

    Maybe her first thought was what she absolutely had to avoid to say. That costs time. And then she came up with an answer that was basically right.

  39. 39
    Charlie Foxtrot

    Argh! Loud ‘hold’ music in fore/background also make me words hard string togethering! Good she do under circumstances. Environment also import in forming cogent argument!

  40. 40
    neuralobserver

    What? WHAT Myers? You’re kidding, right?

    Yeah,… she IS floundering to come up with an answer, like your post is floundering to excuse what should be a short, but intelligent, concise and coherent opinion on a relevant current topic. They’re not asking her opinion on string theory.

    ‘No one expects a dissertation..’-–Christ, of course not! Nervous? Of course!

    But one should be fairly nimble to respond to a (presumably) unknown question–that is a classic part of these contests. A thirty second,’ back of the matchbook’ answer shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for a presumably reasonably capable contestant giving a response for an editorialized answer to a question that most reasonably education people should/would have a concise answer for, even if that opinion is brief, in the minority or completely misplaced.

    One would think that after years, even decades, of criticism over these pageants, the bar for entry, or at least performance, would be a bit higher.

    If that answer had come out of the mouth of a male, or a theist, or any of your other targeted groups or people, you would have come down on them like the twin towers for delivering such a pat, inarticulate, essentially vacuous response– unless phrases like (pause, smile, pause) ‘…we have to figure out,.. how to create education better (WTF?) is acceptable– it certainly isn’t to any of the women that I know.

    Stop making excuses. There are none for a poorly crafted answer like that.
    And to top it off, she didn’t even really answer that question.

  41. 41
    neuralobserver

    (correction: …educated people…

  42. 42
    ekwhite

    What she said sounds just like today’s CFI statement. And they had plenty of time to work on it.

  43. 43
    anteprepro

    A thirty second,’ back of the matchbook’ answer shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for a presumably reasonably capable contestant giving a response for an editorialized answer to a question that most reasonably education people should/would have a concise answer for, even if that opinion is brief, in the minority or completely misplaced.

    Utter bullshit. “Women are the primary breadwinners of 40% of households, and yet still make less money than men, what does this say about society” is a fucking complicated question. It took me a while to process what exactly they were asking. It is not a common question either. Most people wouldn’t be able to come up with a quick response to it. Even if they were trained to give quick off-the-cuff answers, it would still be hard. I actually think that the off-the-cuff answer training did her in: She immediately and reflexively said “education” as probably one of her stock answers and had nowhere to fucking go with it because she rushed into an answer that was a dead-end.

    If that answer had come out of the mouth of a male, or a theist, or any of your other targeted groups or people

    Well, I was going to say how the males and theists we criticize usually aren’t being forced to improvise an answer to a question they don’t care about on a stage. Usually they care quite a bit, have had quite a bit of time to think of their answers, still spout bullshit, and do so pushing actual politics that actually harm people. But really? “Your other targeted groups or people” huh? Telling. Fuck off.

  44. 44
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    neuralobserver

    Okay, put your money where your mouth is. In one paragraph of 80 words or less, please answer the following, whilst avoiding anything which even smells a bit like radical or judgemental politics. You must tie the two facts given into a single point.

    40% of households’ primary earners are women
    Women continue to earn less than men
    What does this say about our society?

  45. 45
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    What’s really going on here is an effort to find supporting evidence for a bias that women in beauty pageants are stupid — and the media are happily jumping on one instance of a clumsy, misspoken answer as confirmation.

    Of course, you also have contestants’ answers to the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in schools. And there’s Miss California, who gave that rather homophobic answer to a question about gayl marriage. And there’s Miss Carolina on Miss Teen USA 2007 and her very… erm… strange answer to what to do about USian-kids who can’t locate the US on a world map. There’s also the answer to the question “what is the most important event in our nation’s history?”.

    When the media wants to concoct a narrative, they get pretty good at picking out evidence for that narrative, no matter how rare it actually is. We know about these kinds of things because they’re what the media covers. They certainly aren’t the normal or even common… I guess… “types” of answers to questions at beauty pageants. But you have those few… those tiny select few… that the media can jump on and say “see? We’re right! They’re stupid!” And they will, of course, respond to such objections like yours with “well, they know these questions are going to be asked! Shouldn’t they have at least done a tiny bit of reading in order to at least fake at being ever-so-slightly intelligent?” Even though you’re right (and you are right, PZ… absolutely, 100% right), they’ll still object, because they want to have this narrative, and they will find anything and everything to boost that narrative.

    The real lesson in this is simple: beauty pageants are just shitty ideas in general and we desperately need to end them. They are worthless and contribute fuck-all to society except to further the view of women as chattel and sex dolls. But we already knew that.

  46. 46
    skaduskitai

    Thank you. I only heard about this through exmormons. When I read it I didn’t understand what was so awful about the answer, nor even how it related to mormonism. She was competing for a beauty pagent, not a Nobel Prize in economics! No one expected her to come up with an actual solution did they?

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