Culture And Criticism

In Slight Defense Of Miss Utah USA, A Little Bit, With Reservations

Television personality and host Giuliana Rancic looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant on Sunday night. i i

hide captionTelevision personality and host Giuliana Rancic looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant on Sunday night.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Television personality and host Giuliana Rancic looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant on Sunday night.

Television personality and host Giuliana Rancic looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant on Sunday night.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Look, Miss Utah USA, Marissa Powell, gave a pretty unimpressive answer to a question about income inequality at the Miss USA pageant. Let's all agree on that.

But what, exactly, did the circumstances call for?

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She was asked — by NeNe Leakes, who first became famous on The Real Housewives Of Atlanta before warring with Star Jones on The Celebrity Apprentice and is therefore exactly the person to whom we would entrust interrogations on major policy issues — the following question: "A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?"

Not to put too fine a point on it, what kind of a simultaneously (1) dumb and (2) impossible to answer question is that? First of all, it's three questions rolled into one — what does it say that in 40 percent of homes, women are the primary earners, or what does it say that women earn less than men, or what does it say that we allow these two facts to coexist?

Second of all, "What does this say about society?" Really? Not "What kinds of help do families need to make ends meet?" or something with at least some policy meat on the bones, but "What does this say about society?" Asked by NeNe Leakes? While you're standing next to Giuliana Rancic, whose other job involves making people walk their fingernails down a tiny, hand-sized red carpet? What would have been a good answer to this question that could have been delivered in the time frame she had?

I think about this kind of stuff a lot. I've studied it. I've had about 20 years longer than Miss Utah USA to think about it. I have no idea what I would have said if someone had asked me such a moronic question on live television.

This isn't the kind of question that actually tests what you know; it's basically a test of your ability to generate cow patties on command. Have you ever seen the part of Miss Congeniality where they all say "world peace" and receive polite applause? The entire reason it's funny when Sandra Bullock says, "That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan," is that she's not supposed to say anything substantive based on her experience. She's supposed to say "world peace."

These dumb questions aren't intended to actually see whether you're smart or not. Miss Utah USA might be smart and she might not be, but the last thing I'd use to guess at whether she's smart is whether she can answer this kind of question "correctly." Because "correctly" here just means smoothly, expertly, without hesitation or stammering. Had she said, "What it says is that we live in the greatest country in the world, and every day I get up and thank my lucky stars that I live in the United States of America," she would not be in the news, despite having given just as irrelevant a non-answer. Had she said, "What it says is that family is the most important thing in the world, and we need to figure out how to help all families be happy families because it's the most important thing in the world," she would not be in the news.

And none of this has to do with whether beautiful women or pageant contestants can be smart or are smart. Some are! Some are not! Welcome to the broad sweep of humanity.

She's not in the news for being dumb; she's in the news for being bad at spontaneous but convincing balderdash manufacturing, and because it's fun to watch a carefully orchestrated spectacle crash on the rocks. She's not a dumb person; she's bad at public speaking. And if she were good at it, nobody would have ever heard of her.

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