Why I feel it’s anti-feminist to poke fun at Miss Utah’s failed response

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.


Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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28 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Eslewhere, a helpful friend just pointed out that this is the Miss USA pageant, not the Miss America pageant, and that a scholarship is not a component. I stand corrected on that issue.

  2. Libby says:

    I’m usually pretty good at thinking on the spot, but I know a *lot* of very smart, very thoughtful people who simply can’t do it. Adding in the fact that the question is a subversive and controversial one in the context of a beauty pageant makes it nearly impossible for anyone to answer well.

  3. Libby says:

    In fact, now that I think about it, if I were running a pageant and wanted to make one of the contestants look bad, that’s the question she’d get “randomly.”

  4. Em says:

    I actually don’t know how I’d answer that question, and I don’t think of myself as a bimbo. She isn’t being asked how to solve it, or what causes it. She’s asked what it says about our society which I think is trickier. That our society is patriarchal? That the deck is stacked against women? It sucks? What is there really to say about that in thirty seconds?

    I think many of the critiques are anti-feminist because she is being attacked as a woman, not (in many cases) the ideas themselves. The words that came out of her mouth are not impressive and, if written as a policy statement, would not inspire confidence. We can critique those ideas, though I agree the question seems a little rigged. But a lot of the criticism is about her personally being stupid, being Mormon, being a dumb babe etc. That is really just the inverse of what we did to Hillary Clinton and other leaders. Instead of discussing the ideas and ignoring gender, we’re putting gender at the center of it. If a man had said that we’d be focusing on how dumb the words were, not how attractive men are stupid, especially if they come from Utah.

  5. Deborah says:

    Take “I think” out of your title and I agree 100%. I’m never comfortable with mockery. This is a particularly onerous situation that sets women up to be gawked at, feeds stereotypes about “dumb models,” and then allows us to gleefully explode when — in an awkward moment — a woman seems to embody this stereotype.

  6. Melody says:

    Thank you, Alisa. This needed to be said. I was horrified by the clip [which was trending #1 clip on Hulu all day – until now. Russell Brandt did something somewhere. . .] and I refused to read any of the commentary on facebook. And yes, to this: “. . . as if it’s feminist to rip on attractive women who are seen as publicly failing.”

    I imagine she’ll have an opportunity to make good, but it was hard to watch. I kept thinking, just say, “Wow. That’s a tough question. . .” Please. Ouch. And God bless her.

  7. Mountaingirl says:

    This reminds me of a post Rune did for FMH (don’t have the link) that talked about how she tried so hard to not be seen through the lens of classic stereotypes that she became part of the problem by setting herself apart and above other women. I can so relate, and I think this is, in part, what made me uncomfortable about her response and the backlash. So many stereotypes were being ascribed and it makes me cringe and its so tempting to mock HER as a defense strategy. Does that make any sense? Or was my answer a fail too? I’m entirely capable of huge fails even on my own time to think and type…

    • Alisa says:

      Your comment makes sense to me. I know the fMh post by Rune (my computer for a link!) and totally identified with what Rune said, and what Winterbuzz has said on the podcast since, that I felt I was a “guy’s girl,” and didn’t belong in a class with the other women. Then I learned to see the ways that women were disadvantaged in the system, and that I as a woman had adopted the male gaze and a way of looking at women that was also misogynist.

  8. Caroline says:

    Great points, Alisa. Your response and insights are generous and compassionate. Indeed, some people are gifted with abilities to give articulate spontaneous responses, and some are not. I know I’m the type of person that has to think for about five minutes before I raise my hand to say anything in class. Add TV cameras and bright lights and I’d probably be hopeless. Not to mention the fact that I think that you are right that that question put her into a very difficult position.

  9. martha says:

    I just happened on this site and this entry but I have to say, as a feminist, that when you assert your right to be treated equally with respect to what you contribute to the culture and circumstances that comes with the cost of being treated with respect to what you have or don’t have to offer.

    This woman voluntarily put herself in a public contest based on her appearance and ability to represent herself. That’s what happened and there was an entirely predictable reaction to it. I’m not saying that every response was measured and dignified but, in the aggregate they are pretty reasonable given how poorly she answered a topical question that’s in the public discourse and has been for a decade or more and which she should have mused on once or twice in all that time.

    How hard would it have been to say something along the lines of the answer to that question is too far reaching for the minutes available; I would just hope that every American is able to develop their skills and talents and trade them in the market fairly in the best tradition of what American democracy and capitalism represent? No one was expecting to take notes and embark instantly on the solution that had, heretofore, eluded everyone. But coherence should have been evident. If it wasn’t to make the demand that people not respond to it is, really, pretty naive and unrealistic. Meanwhile, demanding that there be limits on what people’s responses can be is creating a protected class and, really, flying in the face of equal treatment and feminism. In my opinion.

    • Alisa says:

      I think you make points about what a person can reasonably expect, but I don’t believe I am “demanding” limits on responses nor going to far to call what she did anything less than a failure. She did fail, which I stated. I’m just saying some responses are misogynist. And they are by my definition which is shared by many feminists. People are perfectly welcome to hold misogynistic views and state them. And I can write a post about how calling someone an “airhead” is a woman-hating thing to do. If she had been blonde, do you not think that there would have been blonde jokes? Those stereotypes are rooted in misogyny! People pulled out every woman-hating trope for her. To say horrible things about her as a person based on only this clip, rather than confining it to her failed performance, is in my view a disappointing performance from the commentator. She flubbed, she goofed, she fell on her face so to speak. But she’s not a horrible person for it. She’s still human.

      • martha says:

        OK. Maybe you’d rather not consider that BYU and Mormon patriarchy just didn’t prepare her to risk even a moment’s thought on the subject of the question before tying herself up in an answer that wasn’t even coherent. Maybe you prefer to call it “anti-feminism” instead of a logical response to a monumental display of foot in mouth by an adult woman who volunteered to be judged by her performance. After all, that’s the basic premise of a contest, isn’t it? But the bottom line is that she is no more off limits because she’s pretty or because she’s a woman or because she’s whatever than anyone else who fails in such a spectacular and public manner.

        There is nothing “anti-feminist” about commenting on actual events. “Airhead” doesn’t refer to her gender. It refers to the quality of her performance. And she can be an airhead and a decent person and, most certainly, retains all her status as a human being. Furthermore, if someone called her an airhead I think you’re making a rather broad assumption when you call that misogynist and, in the process, feeding the trope about women having thin skins. Especially in a world where public figures, male and female alike, are subjected to the same consequences daily.

        Why not treat her as a capable adult and evaluate her performance for what it was and move past however uncomfortable it may have been for her instead of taking all that embarrassment on and trying to deflect it by blaming others? I certainly hope she has by now. After all, that would free her up to start forming a thought on why women, decades after the question was first introduced, are still underpaid when many of them are the primary, if not sole, support of their families. That would be an appropriately feminist and constructive approach.

      • Alisa says:

        You’re right, maybe airhead isn’t fully gendered, although I see its usage as gendered in most applications. It’s probably a pretty abilist comment, referring to disabilities such as anencephaly (and as an advocate for my son and other with encephelopathy, this kind of abilist discrimination concerns me, not just as a feminist, but as a mother), and I sincerely dislike using cerebral disability words to describe the flubs of people who clearly don’t have these real and debilitating disorders. It’s good for me to think about which part of my righteous anger this word triggered in me, maybe not my feminist locale, but it’s definitely in my social justice area.

        Anyway, I can only leave you with my argument that we shouldn’t extrapolate about the being of a person based on a very limited view and one failed performance. You may disagree and think you really do have the right to judge her person-hood and make jabs at who she is at her core, and that’s fine. But I try the best I’m able to confine my judgments to what people do–I just can’t know who they are. That’s my argument, and I guess if we disagree about our ability to judge the whole person, we’re probably not going to get anywhere. It’s probably just where we’re each coming from in our own ethos and how we feel about ad hominem attacks on strangers. It would be more fair to wonder why there was such a horribly phrased and completely all-over-the-place question coming from a source who had preparation and plenty of time to form a more cogent argument-disguised-as-question.

      • martha says:

        I am deeply sorry that you, your son and your family have to deal with serious disability. I didn’t realize that was the case and I can see how particular remarks can hit the sore nerve of a lifelong challenge.

        I’d also like to say for the record that I didn’t watch the pageant. I haven’t watched one since the 60s as I think they’re irrelevant and expose women to exactly this sort of superficial evaluation. I don’t understand why women put themselves through this. Still, she did and that’s what happened.

        Again, sorry for your pain. I hope you can separate remarks aimed, however poorly or insensitively, at a particular person or event from your life.

      • Alisa says:

        It was a good examination for *me* to realize why I was so offended by people saying things like, “don’t put a pin next to her head, she’ll pop!” It seemed to me, on the surface, sexist and a poor analysis of her performance. But yeah, I probably have some other sensitivity around how we discuss the stupid things people do in public. It was good for me to look at. You just helped me realize that all my outrage is not feminist outrage.

  10. Olea says:

    I found out about this through an old high school friend (not Mormon). He pointed out that it’s unclear which of the three points they want her to address, and said: “I think about this stuff a lot. I’ve studied it. I’ve had about 20 years longer than Miss Utah USA to think about it. I have no idea what I would have said if someone had asked me such a moronic question on live television.

    This isn’t the kind of question that actually tests what you know; it’s basically a test of your abilities to produce cow patties on demand.”

    I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m grateful that I came across that, rather than mocking posts about her answer.

    I like to imagine that if I was her, I would answer something like “Since that question is impossible to answer thoughtfully within the timeframe given, let’s pretend you asked [rephrasing/reframing of the question, allowing me to share a point of view that’s coherent].”

  11. Rachel says:

    Alisa, you brought up many thoughtful and salient points. Thank you especially for sharing some of Dr. Brene Brown’s insights, as they seem particularly relevant to the situation that young woman found herself in.

    Once upon a time, when I was 17, my mom made me try out for my town’s summer-fair-pageant. When I won, my grandma told me, “I’m so glad you figured out that there is something more important in life than sports.” I was extremely upset, and embarrassed for having won. That alone would have flustered me to give an incoherent response to a not entirely fair question.

    Lastly, as a fellow BYU grad, I am grateful for your gentle reminder that not all BYU students are alike, as not all Mormon women are alike (or women in general, for that matter).

  12. KayG says:

    A your Mormon comic thought maybe Miss Utah won (views and recognition) by landing at the top of “trending” as a result of her wandering answer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlhTUfNHsWw

  13. Jessawhy says:

    Great post. I think it’s easy to make fun of this woman because we believe that she has so many things going for her. Life is easier for beautiful people (aren’t there studies that support that?), so it’s fun to throw stones when we know she’s really fine anyway.
    It sounded to me like she didn’t hear the question very well, or was too nervous to repeat it to herself and really answer it. She was doing a politician-style pivot to address an issue she was prepared for. The question seemed to me to be a bit of a soft-ball questions.
    “What does it say about society that women aren’t paid that much?”
    “It means that society needs to take women’s work more seriously and pay them more. We are worth it!”
    That would be a crowd pleasing answer, not controversial in that setting.

    I just think she was nervous and had that warning siren going off in her head. “What are you saying? What was the question? What is going on here? ABORT, ABORT!!!”

    I’ve had that happen to me on more than one occasion. Usually in a board meeting ;(

    • Alisa says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right on why people hate the beautiful people.

      I’m not sure what exactly the question was about, but it wasn’t just that women earn less, it’s that now women are earning more than their partners, 40% of the time. So she took that fact, then the fact that in general women earn less, and asked what both of those facts together say about society (one about women’s ascent, one about how we still haven’t closed the wage gap). An NPR reporter called it a question meant to generate “cow patties.”

  14. MDearest says:

    The young woman, Marissa Powell, was interviewed by a comedian on his talk show, Jimmy Kimmel. She improves herself in this opportunity. If you’ve read this far in these comments, it’s worth a look:


    • Calliope says:

      Thank you for posting this link! I heard her on a radio morning show explaining how she wasn’t even sure she heard the question correctly, and instead of asking them to repeat it, she was nervous and went for it and once she started, couldn’t take it back — and the rest of her explanation is in the clip.

      Any one could have done that. We all do that sometimes, just not on national television.

  15. Ziff says:

    Great analysis, Alisa. I admit I had some of the reactions you describe in your post, but I can definitely see where you’re coming from that I was being unfair.

  16. Suzette Smith says:

    Amen, Alisa. My continual soap box for women is that we need to support each other in our paths and on our life’s journey. We all make different choices about what is best for us – and women have many hard choices when it comes to education, marriage, families, faith, mothering, etc. Sometimes we afraid that we’ve made the wrong choice, so we look for others who have made similar choices. By uniting with similar choices, we feel safe and believe that we are “Right”. When different choices appear, we sometimes feel worried that we got wrong.

    So, back the Miss Utah. She’s beautiful (I admit, I do hate her just a little for that) and she’s choosing the use that resource in a way that is meaning ful to her. She won’t get it all right. And neither do we. But I agree with Alisa what we should support rather than tear down.

  1. June 23, 2013

    […] Sex + ism: How to tell if your sexism is of the hostile variety? Take the quiz Kuri took! And — while the Mormons have gotten some criticism today — let’s not give the skeptics a pass when there’s some serious introspection needed. Plus, as funny as it is to pick on Miss Utah’s gaffe, maybe it’s also a bit sexist…. […]

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