Miss Congeniality and Feminism of the 2000s: What Have We Learned?

Comedy Features Miss Congeniality
Miss Congeniality and Feminism of the 2000s: What Have We Learned?

It’s the perfect date! April 25th! It’s not too hot and not too cold outside, so put on a light jacket and join me in reflecting on what we have learned about ourselves since the seminal film Miss Congeniality was released in 2000.

I will admit that I went into this film thinking it would have aged very poorly and I could just write a load of jokes about how we were buffoons back then, and society is so enlightened now. A few minutes into this feast of aughts feminism, I realized that is exactly what this film tackles. Oh, to enter into a situation, perhaps a beauty pageant as an undercover FBI agent for example, with a load of preconceived judgements, only to be confronted with your own ingrained misogyny. Gracie Hart, I get it.

There are, of course, some wildly dated moments typical of a 2000s girl power rom-com. Gracie’s (Sandra Bullock) fellow agent Eric (Benjamin Bratt) makes countless jabs at her appearance, which could be construed as banter if the film didn’t play out the “nerdy girl takes off her glasses and her friend finally sees she’s a beautiful woman” trope by the end. In fact, the amount of run time featuring men staring at, analyzing, and commenting on women’s bodies feels gross, voyeuristic, and far too long. Yet, once the pageant begins, this voyeurism is fashioned into a mutual performance of audience, competitors, and judges.

Gracie believes wholeheartedly the lies fed to women by the prevailing rhetoric of a patriarchal society. Even as a child in the playground, when a bully shouts, “You calling me a girl?” she screams back, “You called me one!” right before she does her trademark Gracie Hart S.I.N.G (solar plexus, instep, nose, groin) self-defense move. Her whole life she buys into the notion that to be feminine is to be weak. She rejects femininity entirely to be one of the boys and to be taken seriously in her career.

When discussing her entry to the pageant, the organizers point out the line-up is full, all the states have been claimed. Gracie says she will take Miss New Jersey’s place, who was revealed to be a sex worker (a completely unacceptable profession to have associated with a legitimate competition where women use the male gaze in their favour to gain financial benefits). Honestly, this joke baffled me. I so wanted to mark this as dated sexism that we have moved past, but when I really think about it, this is a joke that could still play in 2024. Have we really grown that much since the 2000s if we cannot give sex workers the respect they deserve?

A beauty pageant naturally challenges all of these conceptions. Before Gracie can accept femininity, she needs to learn how to perform it. Through a violent montage of waxing, trimming, bleaching, and screaming, her body is molded into the shape of “a woman”.  Then, it is time for British fancy man and pageant monster Victor Melling (Michael Caine) to Pygmalion her into having respectable manners. Gracie is ready to walk the stage of performative gender roles!

During the question and answer part section of the pageant, Gracie is asked what her wish for the world is, and her answer further establishes her conservative approach to empathy. Her response—“harsher punishments for parole violators”—has aged like milk. FBI agents and law enforcement are really not as girlboss as the copaganda of the 2000s thought they were.

The true joy of this film, both then and now, is Gracie discovering the tender and loving intimacy of being seen and held by other women. To probe Miss Rhode Island for more information, Gracie and the other contestants go out to a nightclub. They dance, they drink, they pee together. They trauma bond by talking about their experiences of sexual assault. The gals! They have unionized! The following morning, the FBI end their investigation and withdraw their agents from the pageant, but Gracie follows her gut and stays on alone to protect her gals. In return, when she bursts into the dressing room minutes before her call time, the gals surround her and do her hair and makeup. The mutual give and take of friendship amongst women, and learning the comfort of relying on a friend, are the film’s most enduring elements. Miss Congeniality perfectly captures the quick and steady affection between women that grows out of the rich earth of vulnerability. There is power in individual femininity and there is power in the community of collective femininity.

Ultimately, in spite of its dated moments, Miss Congeniality is built to last through the ages. By its nature of challenging preconceived notions, it maintains its own relevancy. There will always be a time for us to question our innate bias, even if it’s about whether Gracie Hart is a girlboss or one of the boys. And there will always be one perfect day a year to wear a light jacket.

Shauna is an Aquarius with a lot of big feelings about movies that she writes into essays. Find her on twitter @shaunasmullen.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin