After Sunday night’s Miss USA pageant, the internet reliably piled on the clip in which Miss Utah bungled the answer to her top-five interview question. The whole scene played out like a pop culture fever dream: there was a Jonas Brother intoning “Nene Leakes, the question please,” and there was Nene Leakes, who rose to fame on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” soliciting a contestant’s thoughts on income equality. “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,” Leakes said. “What does this say about society?” Then Miss Utah, her eyes full of caged-animal panic, soldiered through her unfortunate response: “I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are continuing to try to strive to figure out how to create jobs right now. I think especially men are seen as the leaders of this and so we need to try to figure out how to create education better so that we can solve this problem.”
No one can deny that this is a bad collection of words. It was painful to watch—the defeated little smile halfway through, the slow realization that the words escaping her mouth were in no way amounting to sentences. But the enthusiastic pillorying of Miss Utah is a grim reflection of the way pageant shaming has become a part of our viral culture. Sunday night’s meltdown was a scene familiar from another video that generated a flood of online mockery: the 2007 Miss Teen USA clip in which Miss South Carolina, asked why so many Americans couldn’t locate the U.S. on a map, disgorged a stream of nonsense that was clearly the product of a brain short-circuiting on nerves.
Needless to say, pageant interviews have always been conducive to the most platitudinous of platitudes. There is exactly no good answer to the question “What does this say about society?” And pageants are theoretically supposed to be at least partly about female empowerment, even if that takes the form of duking it out for the most canned, family-friendly commentary on world affairs and the most sculpted glutes. But now that the interview has become a public shaming ritual, it makes the whole ordeal of the pageant seem like a sadder spectacle. I doubt many people know who won Miss Teen USA in 2007, but far more remember Miss South Carolina and her geographical nonsequiturs. If the old pageant stereotype was the cutthroat behind-the-scenes catfighting of Drop Dead Gorgeous or the frivolous girliness of Miss Congeniality, now it’s the thousand-yard stare of a contestant realizing that her failure of poise is about to hit YouTube.