NPR placed this clip of Miss Utah bombing her question about what having a growing minority of female breadwinners while women still earn less than men says about society. She gives a jumbled response about education, and something about men leading the way, but basically it’s a just a big fail.
The NPR post was followed up by numerous posts in Mormon-ish facebook groups, including feminist ones, making fun of not her response, but the woman herself. Several assumed that because she attended BYU, she had never thought about women working for money for their families (ahem, I went to BYU and have been the primary breadwinner for 12 years for my family). Many responded in ways that suggested that there’s an inverse relationship between her beauty and her brains. Several responses about having no brain, or being an airhead. I guess my problem is that I saw many of these responses as markedly sexist and playing into stereotypes about attractive women, as if it’s feminist to rip on attractive women who are seen as publicly failing.
I guess I’d like to examine why when something like this happens to a Mormon woman, we (as in those Mormons in those Mormon groups on facebook) feel that she deserves our scorn. Is it that some people think she’s “asking for it” by enrolling in a beauty-scholarship contest? I may remind people that not all scholarships are academic in nature. Is it that she’s chosen to compete in a televised competition so we feel we can enjoy her downfall? Has the media’s treatment of starlets and other fallible female celebrities made us see this pattern in others? Or is it that we feel that because of her BYU background we can assume that she is sheepish and obedient to the patriarchy?
I just want to respond that while someone may be trying to earn their way through college by engaging in a competition meant to measure the most beautiful and feminine single woman, that may not mean that she deserves our disdain. I also am weary of the way we experience schadenfreude over reality TV, and I don’t watch it because I believe it brings out the worst in viewers as we judge and hate those on screen. And assuming that every woman who has attended BYU is the same is an insult to us all–I went because I knew I didn’t buy into the Church’s truth claims in high school, so I wanted to learn from intelligent professors and figure out why they believed. I went because I wanted to struggle with deep existential questions and see how some of the brightest Mormons did it, and while there I had my feminist awakening.
I think why I feel like the criticism of Miss Utah is undue is because I see a woman in the arena, and the critics on the side, never being brave enough to have tried something as grueling as this competition is in so many ways. Maybe it’s also because as a Myers-Briggs iNtuitive type, I understand what it’s like to have a formation of a critique in my head and not to be able to spit it out clearly and in time, often having the words come clearly after the conversation, the board meeting, the parent-teacher conference has ended. To be an N-P personality in an S-J world can be a hard thing.
But I think what bothers me most is that here is a perfect example of a woman being asked to do something nearly impossible. She is in a competition to judge her femininity, which according to the social work research by Dr. Brene Brown means “skinny, nice, and modest.” Yet asked a politically-charged question when she is supposed to maintain these feminine qualities, she falls flat on the spot. Dr. Brown says, “Speaking out is a major shame trigger for women. Here’s how the research participants described the struggle to be authentic:
- Don’t make people uncomfortable, but be honest.
- Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but say what’s on your mind.
- Sound informed and educated but not like a know-it-all.
- Don’t say anything unpopular or controversial, but have the courage to disagree with the crowd.
(The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 52)
I guess my problem is that when Miss Utah was asked such a politically-charged question, but expected to not rustle the waters or make waves, I feel for her being caught in the middle. I feel our whole way of measuring femininity is stacked against getting women to speak freely and authentically and intelligently on these issues. I feel for her as I feel for myself when I’ve tried to make a helpful comment to reverse some sexism in Relief Society without offending those around me, when I have tried to talk to a bishop cooperatively about women’s issues while I still needed his endorsement to teach at BYU. I don’t have the grace to find a way to completely speak my mind without controversy, so I usually just give up and make controversy anyway, now that I’ve quit that BYU job and have more freedom. But I didn’t have to win my college tuition, or my salary, by winning a contest on my femininity; however, not all women are so lucky. It’s a delicate dance, and sometimes we’ll fall flat on our faces. But if we’re going to sit in the bleachers and criticize, let’s keep the criticism to the performance, not the performer.