The woman who is coordinating the local Junior Miss pageant is in our ward and, since we are known ward intellectuals, she asked my wife to do her a favor: she needs hard questions to ask the girls for their question and answer section. She turned to the intellectuals in the area (which is hilarious, since our ward is populated with college professors) and asked us to come up with questions that would challenge the girls. My wife explained all this to me last night by way of apology for suddenly being caught up in a pageant.
I haven’t watched the Miss America/USA/Universe pageants in years, nor have I attended local pageants. At a parade a couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law noted that the difference between the dresses of the pageant winners we saw driving by was that the queen got the dress with the spaghetti straps and the low back and her attendants looked to be in hastily ordered bridesmaids dresses. At the Ephraim parade I attended several weeks ago, half of the attending pageant parties were in the backs of pickup trucks. I often find myself on the third floor of the Wilkinson Center, walking past all those homecoming queens. I am curious about the role of women’s pageants in Mormon society. Do they mean something different amongst us than they do among the wider Gentile audience?
As I see it, a pageant is meant to give us a model of “the complete woman” (ie. the impossible ideal). As such, she should be physically attractive, witty, intelligent, compassionate, wildly talented, and gracious. The goal of the pageant is to find the girl who most completely fulfills this ideal. For that matter, the goal of pageants seems to be to indicate that anyone can be witty, intelligent, compassionate, wildly talented, and gracious, so we should focus on deciding which of those girls is the most attractive (there are more aspects of the competitions that are based on looks than on those other equally desirable traits). This seems like a construction of the “ideal woman” from a completely male perspective to me. Admittedly, I think that the impossible ideal for men is remarkably similar, perhaps only replacing gracious with something like “able to kill a cougar with bare hands.” Setting aside the ethics of having an impossible ideal, do women’s pageants really establish what we want today in the opposite sex? In our own sex?
Okay, now let’s take up the impossible ideal. I heard a story on the radio once about chickens and the photographers who take pictures of them. There is a standard of appearance for chickens. Certain photographers have a reputation of taking pictures of chickens that gets those chickens to look much more like that standard than otherwise might be the case. It is widely acknowledged that the standard is unlikely to occur in any one chicken, but that the chickens that get closest will sell for more on the market. Now this is probably okay amongst chickens. They aren’t even aware of being judged superior or inferior based on some arbitrary standard developed by someone else. But amongst humans, we understand that those standards are standards because all our peers accept them and that this means that it determines what our peers think of us (to some degree). If we don’t live up to some ideal, whatever it me be, we feel the loss. Even if the impossible ideal is essentially arbitrary, our failure to live up to it can make us feel guilty and inferior. At the same time, other people argue that, unlike chickens, humans have the ability to change themselves. So setting an impossible ideal as a goal, while impossible to achieve, can make us better for all our trying. So, today’s third question is: are impossible ideals worth the trouble?
Getting to women’s pageants, instead of chicken judging, my wife and I still have to some up with the questions that our local girls will be asked. We decided that the questions shouldn’t be impossible (ie. How would you, personally, establish peace in the Middle East?), but that they should be challenging. We wanted to ask questions that would take the girls out of their comfort zone, but which would be realistically answerable by a 17-year-old. Also, we wanted to give them questions that would allow them to discuss their own future and their goals (scholarships are at stake, you know). So, here are the questions we have thus far come up with. Please critique and suggest your own (we aren’t the only ones coming up with questions, but we probably want to suggest more than five).
1. What one thing could you do to make the world substantially better and how would it help?
2. If you met a poor mother from the other side of the world who was roughly your age, what would you talk about?
3. What one novel would you like the next generation to read? Why?
4. To whom, besides your parents, do you owe your greatest debt of gratitude and what do plan to do to repay that debt?
5. Which person in history do you most admire? How does your view of this person affect your behavior and your plans for the future?
Please answer any of the above questions or suggest your own.