Miss Utah USA — P.T. Barnum would be pleased

P.T. Barnum started it. He knew a sucker was born every minute, but he had no idea how many suckers could be lured by a parade of pretty girls.
Miss USA 2013

Or maybe he did have an idea, and he was just born a bit too soon.

Barnum’s first beauty pageant in 1854 didn’t get too far because people considered it scandalous. It was considered immoral to parade women onstage and judge their looks.

That’s progress for you. Today’s pageants reduce contestants to the bare essentials, let everyone size them up, then throw questions at them to see how articulate and poised they are under pressure.

That’s what got Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell in trouble over the weekend. She flubbed her answer to a confusing question from NeNe Leakes that, as near as I can tell, had something to do with whether women should be paid the same as men, although the actual question asked what the results of a survey said about society.

It wasn’t the first time a beauty contestant flubbed a question. But when it happens, the nation seems to stand still for a moment as YouTube links are thrown around.

For many, it is the first time they are made aware that a pageant actually took place.

It makes me wonder, what would happen if a contestant flubbed a different part of the competition? What if she wore a hideous evening gown or, heaven forbid, revealed some cellulite during the swimsuit competition? What if she was an articulate Rhodes scholar who cured AIDS and Alzheimer’s in a single stroke but was short and had a few bulges even Photoshop couldn’t fix?

Well, the answer of course is she wouldn’t be in the pageant. Those aren’t the types of things being valued here, which makes all the fuss about Powell’s answer a little confusing.

Apparently, Americans used to be a little more straightforward as to how they judged beauty contestants. Watch this old video for an idea:

NPR’s Linda Holmes was critical of the question Miss Utah USA had to answer. Fair point, but I’m more concerned with what the pageant is about in the first place, and whether it’s entertainment worth two hours of our lives.

Back in the late ‘60s, feminists used to picket pageants as if it was 1854 and P.T. Barnum was around. They held signs saying all women are beautiful.

That’s a nice sentiment. Whatever happened to those people?

And why has something P.T. Barnum couldn’t convince people to do in his day become a revered part of our culture?

If Barnum were around today, he would admire Marissa Powell. After all, everyone knows her name now. That wouldn’t be true if she had mouthed some articulate and mostly predictable inanity in response to the question.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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