Miss Congeniality: The Classic Story of the Ugly Duckling

Oppositional Gaze Blog

I chose to focus on an old favorite, Miss Congeniality. Miss Congeniality stars Sandra Bullock as FBI agent Gracie Hart alongside her love interest Agent Matthews (played by Benjamin Bratt). The plot follows Agent Hart and her fellow agents as they work to solve a case centered around the Miss United States Pageant. In order to fully tackle the case, Agent Hart must go undercover as a pageant contestant, a role that is a sharp contrast to what she is accustomed to. Throughout the movie, the audience watches as Agent Hart’s character undergoes several changes during her time posing as Miss New Jersey. The most obvious of these changes is that of her physical appearance and the way it affects her role as both a woman and an FBI agent. While the movie may attempt to tell the story of an ugly duckling turned regal swan that saves the day and falls in love, it ultimately condemns the women that Gracie Hart once was and replaces it with a better, more “womanly” version. In doing so, it implies that women cannot be successful, find love, or make a difference based off their power alone but instead off their physical beauty and their stereotypical role as an object for men’s viewing pleasure. 

Agent Hart’s character is introduced to us as fairly of rough and tough; she does not possess any stereotypically feminine qualities and she has a knack for beating up men who piss her off. While her grouchy, no bullshit attitude is almost endearing to the audience, it is easy to pick up on the underlying message that she is lacking as a women. Yes, we can see that she is successful, but we can also see that she lives alone (how could she possibly be happy without a boyfriend?) and not really taken seriously by the male agents in her FBI unit. For example, in one of the earlier scenes, Agent Hart makes a mistake while carrying out an operation and later her boss chews her out and puts her on probation. Despite her brains and her ability, she is undermined and left behind. It is not until she is selected to portray a Miss United States Pageant contestant that she is of use. With her new role as a contestant, the audience witnesses the big transformation of ugly duckling to regal swan. In order for her to convince everyone that she is Miss New Jersey, Agent Hart acquires a personal pageant adviser and a team for hair, makeup and wardrobe. Together, they wax, polish, straighten and tighten until she is a brunette Barbie. This transformation is very much like that of Princess Mia in The Princess Diaries in which we watch an stereotypically unattractive looking girl be turned into a supermodel. It is only once she has become a beautiful woman, she has value in the eyes of her colleagues and attracts the attention of the tall, dark and handsome Agent Matthews. The following pictures show before and after pictures of her metamorphosis.

Miss-Congeniality

I understood the dominant reading of the film as the idea that while humor and success can look good on a woman, nothing looks better than a tight dress. I felt like the film approached her lack of stereotypical femininity in a sympathetic manner so that the audience likes her character before her transformation, yet I think we are supposed to like her even more once she funny, strong, AND sexy.

Immediately I was struck by the overwhelming presence of the male gaze. When thinking about and watching the film in terms of the oppositional gaze, I thought of the presence of the male gaze and female stereotypes. With a plotline that entirely focuses on a beauty pageant, the opportunities for the objectification of women are nearly endless. The themes of sex and what it means to be a woman in the eyes of men overshadow the entirety of the film, taking away from the strength and intelligence of women. Even when Agent Hart is wearing sweatpants and chewing with her mouth open, the audience can still understand the implications of the male gaze because we understand that she is not desirable in their eyes, providing us an opportunity to compare once we find out later what does make her desirable. In the end of the film, Agent Hart and Agent Matthews fall in love after he finally realizes that she is worthy. This is was ultimately the most disturbing part of the film as it shows the audience that now that she achieved the male’s standards of female beauty, she deserves to be happy.

One aspect of the male gaze is most prominent throughout the film is the element of fetishism. In the McCabe reading “’Structuring a Language of Theory’ in Feminist Film Studies: Writing the Woman Into Cinema” she writes “translating the woman into fetish diverts attention away from the female ‘lack’… so that she no longer represents a menacing figure but an idealized spectacle of beauty and perfection (31). We see this ideal figure of a women in Miss Congeniality from the second we see Agent Hart in her blue dress with a blowout and onward until the end. The ideal woman, Agent Hart after her transformation in this case, is fetishized by the way she dresses, the way she walks, and by the way she interacts with the male characters. She is something to be gawked at, not to make a difference. This is interesting because Agent Hart ends up saving the day and the audience sees her intelligence and strength outshine that of her peers time and time again. However, this is completely diminished by scenes of her the dressing room with the other contestants or swimming with Agent Matthews. The male gaze empowers objectification and eliminates all other facets of what it means to be a woman.

Similarly, gender stereotypes run rampant through the film. Agent Hart says things like “I don’t own a brush” and immediately the audience is supposed to associate this with unattractiveness. We also see her eat with mouth open, snort when she laughs, and wrestle; these portrayals are supposed to show the audience the opposite of what a stereotypical woman should look like. Later, after the transformation, we find ourselves staring at image after image of stereotypical female beauty. Additionally, we are faced with other stereotypical female elements thanks to the other pageant contestants. We are introduced to the mean girl, the ditzy girl, the crazy party chick and the wholesome girl. Together, they are all beautiful but easily marked so that the audience can recognize the classic archetypes that exist for women.

Watching Miss Congeniality with a critical eye changed this movie for me. While I still enjoyed it and laughed at the dumb jokes, I found myself cringing more than I was laughing. I employed an oppositional gaze by focusing on the images and dialogue with the intent to challenge. When I watch movies, it is easy for me to become a passive viewer but this time I was ready to find flaws. Like bell hooks mentioned in her article “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” the intent to challenge reality is key in this process (116). That being said, while I did challenge what I was seeing, I was able to find pleasure in the film by appreciating the moments in which Agent Hart’s smarts or strength were depicted. By reading against the grain, I found many instances of the male gaze and stereotyping, but I also found instances of power and pride. After watching this film again critically, it is important to remember that this scenario is alive and well in the real world as well. Women are still considered “less than” when society considers them to be stereotypically unattractive or too masculine. It is my hope that we can start to see more realistic portrayals of women that leave out these images and focus instead on things that matter like kindness and intelligence.

Sources:

hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-131.

McCabe, Janet. “Feminist Film Studies: Writing the Woman into Cinema.” London: Wallflower, 2004. Print.

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