A few thoughts on the rhetoric of pageantry

So, I really, really hate beauty pageants, and I had every intention last week of utterly ignoring Miss America and pretending that the nation doesn’t still come together once a year to fawn over bikini bodies that we roll out like sports cars.

But then Nina Davuluri, a New Yorker of Indian descent, won. Whatever, fine. I was still busy not paying attention at this point. But wait! Then some ugly corner of the Twitterverse started spitting out some seriously racist stuff making heavy use of phrases like “Arab,” “terrorist,” “real American,” “remember 9/11,” and so forth. Hmmm.

So, I was annoyed because (a) people were being racist, and (b) I suddenly felt obligated as a good rhetorician to pay some attention to Miss America.

So here are my thoughts. I’ll begin with the question, what is a pageant — rhetorically speaking? A beauty pageant like Miss America looks a lot like what Aristotle terms epideictic rhetoric. Ceremonial oratory, the rhetoric of praise and blame — that which firms up a sense of community, common conviction, and shared values among rhetor and audience. Beauty pageants are engineered to reassert (praise) dominant conceptions of female beauty (obviously), but also to reassert our loosely defined but powerfully emoted dedication to ideas like education, charity, personal initiative, and competitive spirit; in other words, the topoi of the beauty pageant are the topoi of American ideology defined in the broadest strokes possible. Hence, we want an intelligent Miss America, but one who doesn’t threaten our commonplace assumptions of what a “Miss America” should look like, sound like, and do. For a lot of people, apparently, that means, among other things, a white Miss America.

My hypothesis is that a lot of viewers tuned in for a reaffirmation of the “America” they know and love (a very different “America” from the one I know and love) and found their expectations cruelly shattered by a woman who didn’t look the part. Within a certain narrative, the one where America’s traditional values are under attack and the nation wages a (holy) war against Islam, Nina Davuluri looked enough that part of the “bad guy,” the ambiguously dark Middle-Easterner, that her ascendance to a title synonymous with quintessential American values was a slap in the face.

A host of enthymemes erupted across the Twittersphere, illustrating this narrative logic:

How the fuck does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab! #idiots

I swear I’m not racist but this is America.

9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?

Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.

And so on. The warrant collectively underscoring this set of claims sums to something like “dark-skinned people of Asian descent are ‘Arabs’ and therefore terrorists, complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and enemies of America.” Comment #2’s author is “not racist” (she swears!) but she must believe at least part of the warrant above.

For a lot of these tweeters, Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, was the cruelly jilted protagonist of the story. Check it out:

In other words (and whether she likes it or not — I don’t blame Miss Kansas an iota for her more vitriolic fans), she’s the “real” hero of a certain narrative founded on a certain vision of America. If nothing else Miss America has dramatized the instability of what our country “really” means.

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