Miss USA: Fantasy Fulfillment or Cautionary Tale?

The 60th Miss USA Pageant is Sunday. And our princess obsession is still going strong

Tis the season for tiaras. Case in point: I got to listen in on a press call yesterday afternoon with this year's Miss USA Pageant co-hosts Andy Cohen, of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens: Live,” and Giuliana Rancic, co-anchor of “E! News,” (the big show airs Sunday June 19 at 9 PM Eastern on NBC). A reporter asked the hosts to explain the magical attraction of pageants and Giuliana said something that gave me pause: "I think it's the Cinderella factor. It's the same reason we all tuned in to watch Kate Middleton get married [...] It's wonderful to watch a young girl realize her dreams." 

Realize her dreams? With everything women can do and be now, is scoring the Miss USA crown really the pinnacle of achievement? I'd like to think not. But then I read about elementary schools hosting "Princess Days" during their annual Spirit Weeks, and I'm not so sure.

The fact is, Giuliana is dead-on with her Kate Middleton comparison. Beauty queens are the closest thing our democratic nation has to royalty. And as I said right before the Royal Wedding: Princesses symbolize everything wrong with our beauty culture. We expect them to be beautiful and demure. Desirable but never in charge of their own desires. Their main achievement in life is marriage and they don't get to have careers. And oh my goodness, do we want them to be thin.

Right there, I can't get my head around the idea of princessdom as a lifelong dream. Being so pageant sounds like an awful lot of pressure and not a lot of freedom.

But what's even wackier about the Miss USA Pageant is that it offers us our princess fix with a scandal-heavy twist. Wild child Kelly Osborne will be offering "color commentary" this year. The 2010 Miss USA continued a proud tradition by courting controversy over photos leaked from her pole dancing class, her Middle Eastern heritage, and late night partying. And Fox News has already reported on plans to ask the current contestants whether they'd ever pose for nude photos.

So yes, it's the Cinderella factor, but Miss USA is also, as Andy noted, "a competition [...] 51 contestants are winnowed down to one winner." And the contest doesn't end when the winner gets crowned -- instead, it continues for the next year, with tabloid news weighing in every time our new queen shows up somewhere in sweatpants or downs a Jell-O shot.

Miss USA is fantasy fulfillment and a cautionary tale, all wrapped up into one tiara-wearing package. We build up our beauty queens and then we tear them down off their thrones. And then we wonder why women tear each other down for being too pretty or too successful in real life.

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