I spent part of my weekend judging a beauty pageant in a Dallas suburb. I fully expect that a flood of images may come to your mind. Perhaps these are images of ditzy, young blond gals in big pageant dresses possibly chewing gum while twirling their hair around an index finger and wishing for “world peace” when asked about their aspirations for their generation. I set out to ask each candidate, during our private interview rounds, what they believe the stereotypes are of beauty pageants and what it is they would do to overcome this misnomer. Each girl was spot on in her assessment of the stereotypes. Perhaps pageants are seen as objectifying women, one contestant shared with me. Perhaps the contestants are vapid or shallow or disconnected or just plain dumb, to sum up another’s response. One gal of African American decent even stated, bravely and rather directly, that her circle viewed pageants as a “white girl phenomenon” that looked favorably upon blond hair, skinny bodies and Valley girl personalities. She was indeed not blond, not slight of build and did not necessarily read as “Valley girl” in dialect and yet she competed quite successfully. The current Miss Texas, by the way, is a gorgeous, African American girl. And while the girls were spot on about these stereotypes, they were less able to vocalize about what they would do to dispel these commonly held notions.
Their conduct last night, however, spoke volumes and really resonated for me that beauty pageants, at least legitimate ones like the Miss America franchise, as an example, are truly phenomenal preparation for success in future careers and in life. These gals have to be good at everything – physical fitness and a talent like singing or playing an instrument. They must possess poise and grace and they must be aware of and be able to vocalize their opinions of a myriad of current events and social and political occurrences.
When I was 18, just entering college, I was neither physically fit (I was severely underweight, a waif one might say), nor talented at anything that comes to mind that I might demonstrate to a roomful of onlookers (a decade of piano lessons would prove me to be nothing more than a mediocre pianist). And here we are quick to rush to judgment against these gals who spend their years writing about a social platform that is important to them and then following through in their communities by volunteering and making a difference as far as these platforms are concerned. One gal’s platform was to provide a cultural outlet to those in her community who had no access to the arts, so she provided free violin lessons and enrichment trips to museums. Another girl had been affected by bullying so she started a bullying support group and drew attention to solving the issue in her local high school. At their age, I had made no such impact on my schoolmates or community. I was so moved by the tenacity of these young girls and their abilities to drive change in their small corner of the world. Who am I to judge?
My thesis for this blog entry is not necessarily regarding beauty queens or beauty pageants but instead I wish to pose the same question I asked each young woman last night on my readers and myself. What are the stereotypes that we face and what have we done to overcome these stereotypes in our small corners of the world?
I remember as a kid overhearing a friend’s parent suggesting that my family might possibly be of the mafia! I suppose, to some, any American household of Italian decent that has aspired to more than a lower-middle class lifestyle must be mob-connected! Oh how we laughed at this one. My family, though not wealthy, were certainly better off than most of the other families with whom I went to school, and were probably the best off among our extended family. My parents both possessed impressive work ethic and my brother and I honestly never knew the word “no” because my parents wanted to provide for us as much as they could. I went to Europe every summer of my high school years, and I enjoyed many cultural and enrichment endeavors like swim lessons, ice-skating, gymnastics, piano, guitar, and whatever else my parents thought would make my brother and I well rounded individuals. My parents provided this kind of reality for us through nothing more than hard work and careful financial planning. I would imagine that this isn’t what comes to mind when viewers might think of some of the husbands and wives in reality shows like Real Housewives of New Jersey. I’d imagine people would be quick to assume that they couldn’t possibly make an honest living with their lack of intellectual quotient and questionable work ethic. I’d imagine a mafia connection might seem a not-so-out-of-line conclusion.
Reality television shows have done little to dispel the stereotypes that already exist about the groups portrayed. And whose fault is this? Is the cable networks or the participants on these shows who are likely inauthentic in their “reality acting” and choose to “sell-out” their families and represent themselves in a way that only feeds the desire for more of the same stereotype. The same can be said for Honey Boo Boo or A-List Dallas or Princesses Long Island or Big Rich Texas or Real Housewives of Atlanta.
What’s my point? We are representatives of the demographic groups that we belong to and our actions in the world can genuinely and authentically communicate to others sociological ideology that may be construed as larger and more pervasive than just representative of ourselves. If I were a beauty queen at a pageant, I’d make sure above all else that I was well-read and informed and poised and confident in my ability to vocalize my points of view. If I were a reality show participant, I’d make sure that the honest work that I do and the honest living that I make are well documented.
When I moved to Texas some years ago, I had a bright and polished young student tell me, in retrospect, that I was the first gay person she had ever met. Growing up and living most of my adult life in New York, I took this kind of thing for granted. Surely she had had some interaction with a gay person and perhaps didn’t realize it? No. She also divulged that she was so overwhelmed by what a positive role model I was to her and her fellow students. She told me that she felt I carried myself with professionalism and enthusiasm and a sense of respect for everyone around me no matter how diverse an audience I had. What a responsibility we have to be a positive representation, not just as individuals, but also as members of the groups we identify with.
What are the stereotypes that are attached to the groups you are a member of? As a gay man, I have never been promiscuous, never contracted an STD, never really experimented with drugs, never led a morally loose lifestyle of partying at clubs and hooking up with whomever came my way. I am not judging those who engage in these phenomena, but I am affirming that the personal choices I have made in my life don’t conform to these stereotypes. And perhaps this is what surprised this student of mine, that my life does not ascribe to the formula that she is perhaps fed by news media, or social media or popular media, or perhaps what she sees “in the street.”
Again, I ask you, what are the stereotypes that exist? Which are the groups that are known for lacking moral decency? Engaging in gang violence? Having children out of wedlock or to fatherless households? Being drug users? Being dishonest? Being cheap? Using religion to promote terrorism? Being stupid? Being incapable of driving? Irresponsibly having children? Spreading diseases like HIV? Being drunks? Subscribing to Nazi ideals? Being weak? Being passive? Being illiterate?
Which of these stereotypes apply to a group that you are a member of? What example are you setting to dispel them? If you were a pageant girl last night in Dallas, you were indeed employing your intellect, your ability to adapt and think quickly on your feet, your polish, your poise, your hours of research and reading and practice to demonstrate to the audience that pageant girls are, indeed, not dumb.