Miss Real America
May 19, 2010

On Twitter, Christa reminds me that the beauty pageant is a long-running Southern institution. Without speculating about why that is, I think it makes the explanation for why Miss USA has become so politically significant in the conservative community pretty simply: it’s a function of the further blurring between political and cultural signifiers for the right.

Obviously there’s going to be some overlap between the two in any cohort (says the liberal who listens to punk rock, watches The Daily Show, etc.), but what’s interesting about folks like Pipes and Malkin is how they find it impossible to view any form of cultural expression through any lens other than the ideological purity detector. It’s easy to criticize, but mostly it just makes me feel bad for them; I can’t imagine how much more narrow and impoverished my life would be if I reflexively rejected any form of cultural expression that didn’t conform to my own worldview.

UPDATE: Via Dara, beauty pageants have apparently been declining in popularity for decades.

Theory: As beauty pageants became less popular in the north, conservatives started identifying them even more closely with the values of Real America, which in turn alienated more non-conservative fans and contestants, which then in turn made pageants into even more of a conservative shibboleth, etc.

You know what other recent historical trend fits that shape? Conservative orthodoxy in general.

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Apparently Beauty Pageants Are a Really Huge Deal?
May 18, 2010

Most of the commentary in my RSS Reader on Miss-USA-isn’t-Aryan-gate is typically sharp, but I think a lot of folks are missing what, to me, is the most interesting angle. For example, in the above link, Benen mockes Daniel Pipes by writing:

In other words, a prominent conservative “thinker” is not only bothered by the winner of the Miss USA pageant, but he cares enough about the matter to “recall” similar instances — as if he actually keeps track of such things.

And even Ta-Nehisi Coates can’t keep himself from smirking, saying:

It’s come to beauty pageants, folks. These fools are crying about beauty pageants.

And true, there is something more than off about how huge a deal this is in the conservative blogosphere. But it isn’t like Pipes heard the news and said to himself, “I have no prior interest in pageants, but here’s an opportunity to be racist.” The more corners from which one hears the ongoing right-wing freakout, the harder it is to avoid the impression that beauty pageants have been a huge deal in conservative circles for a while.

Looking back further, that’s undoubtedly true. Carrie Prejean, of course, became a conservative icon, and, as Chait notes, Gretchen Carlson and Sarah Palin are also former beauty queens. I remember also noting a few years ago that Powerline seemed to be pretty aggressively covering the Miss USA contest, but it never occurred to me that it might be part of a larger trend. Now it seems sort of obvious.

In a Google Buzz conversation, my friend Dara blamed the proliferation of conservatives in beauty pageants on the fact that “girls who grow up in liberal households are more likely to be taught that they are not to be judged primarily on their looks,” but that alone doesn’t seem to me like a satisfying answer. It’s not that liberals are underrepresented in pageants: it’s that these pageants are apparently major conservative events, closely tracked by conservative commentators you wouldn’t expect to care that much. So there’s clearly something about the whole concept of Miss USA that appeals to cultural conservatism on a deep, intuitive level.

With that in mind, I’m not so interested in mocking Daniel Pipes for caring. I think the more interesting response is to ask why he cares. I’ve got some ideas I’ll be sharing soon.

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