I'm not a pageant watcher, but the big scandal is that Miss North Carolina won the Miss USA contest this weekend. Conservative conventional wisdom is that Miss California, who was first runner-up, was a shoe-in to take the crown, except that she failed to give the "politically correct" answer to a question about same-sex marriage:
Hilton asked Miss California's Carrie Prejean her thoughts on legalizing gay marriage during the Miss USA 2009 pageant, which aired live Sunday night on NBC.
"Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage," he said. "Do you think every state should follow suit, why or why not."
At first, Prejean seemed to trip over her words before giving an answer that drew a mixed reaction from the audience and a look of thinly veiled disgust from Hilton.
"I think it's great Americans are able to choose one or the other," she said. "We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what in my country, in my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody there, but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be, between a man and a woman."
As I said, conservatives are quick to say that Miss California failed to win because she answered the question wrongly. John Hindraker, for example writes:
The two co-organizers of the Miss California pageant said they were "personally saddened and hurt that Miss California believes marriage rights belong only to a man and a woman."
Nothing about this narrative could be surprising to anyone who pays attention to our news and our popular culture. Yet there is something very weird about the idea that Miss California lost the Miss USA crown because she gave such a "controversial" answer to a political question. After all, she represented the state of California in the pageant, and we know for a fact that most Californians agree with her, as evidenced by the recent Proposition 8 vote. Moreover, her position is not only the one endorsed by most Americans in opinion surveys, it is also the view taken by President Obama. So why is it more "controversial" than any other political opinion? We all know that if Miss California had answered Hilton's question by saying that she believes in equal rights for all, and that means gay marriage, there would have been no controversy and, very likely, she would have won the title.
Nobody, including me, has a direct pipeline to the minds of the Miss USA judges. But it doesn't seem clear to me that Miss California "lost" because her response was "wrong" or "controversial". It seems to me that her answer was simply bad. As in, poorly constructed.
Let's parse it. She started off with this:
"I think it's great Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage."
Well, unfortunately, we don't live in that kind of a land. You can't "choose" to have a same-sex marriage, unless you live in four of the 50 states that recognize same-sex marriage.
Now, perhaps she meant to say "it's great that Americans are able to vote on whether to recognize same-sex marriages or not". That would have been okay — a nice little nod to democracy.
The problem is, she didn't say that. So, you know, points off, right away.
Next comes the trainwreck portion of her answer:
And you know what in my country, in my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"And you know what" — that phrase alone makes her sound like a stereotypical blonde airhead. But even if we omit that we get a "sentence" that makes no sense:
…in my country, in my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.
If she wants to say that she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, fine.
If she wants to say that her family believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, that's fine, too. I mean, it's honest, so she can hardly be criticized. [UPDATE: I guess it's not honest. Miss California's sister is a gay rights activist who supports same-sex marriage, which is why Miss California admitted today: "My beliefs have nothing to do with my sister or my mom, or whatever" — so much for the "my family" thing.]
But this "in my country"? Honey, it's Perez Hilton's country, too. And the "country" does not believe that marriage should be just between a man and a woman. It's, if anything, divided on the issue. (And I won't even mention the awkward phrasing "I think that I believe…." — huh? You don't know what you believe?)
Moreover, the question was about a state's policy toward same-sex marriage. Her belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman is irrelevant. Which is what makes it a bad answer. (Analogy: A person can be a Catholic and still believe that the state shouldn't discriminate against Jews).
So, in my view, Miss California blew it on the Q and A not because of her belief in man-woman marriage, but because she largely dodged the question, and did so rather ineloquently. My understanding of the Q and A is that it is not about whether the question is answered "correctly" or even "politically correctly", but rather, to be cogent and responsive. Miss California didn't do well in this category at all.
This, then, answers the question put forth by Hindraker in perspective:
Miss North Carolina, the winner of the Miss USA competition, was also asked a political question–about bailouts. She responded by disapproving of the federal government bailing out private companies. Yet this answer, which 1) runs counter to the policies adopted by our national government, 2) stands in stark opposition to the actions of our President, and 3) is more a matter of current debate than gay marriage, was not considered "controversial" by anyone. Why not?
Again, the difference, it would seem, was not the substance of one's answer or how "controversial" it was, but rather, the way in which the answer was (or wasn't) articulated.