In Miss Congeniality, when FBI agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) transforms into the beauty queen no one ever thought she could be, her reconstruction is framed as an uplifting tale of self-discovery. But looking back, some of the film’s messages are less than inspirational.
Looks are prioritized over personality, workplace harassment goes unchallenged, and much of the humor revolves around misogynistic gender norms. These toxic takeaways aged so poorly that the sequel, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, tried to rectify them a few years later. Still, there’s a lot that the original film gets right, which explains its powerful legacy. It champions female friendships, stresses the importance of having priorities outside of work, and encourages women to stand up for themselves.
Here’s our take on the mixed messages of Miss Congeniality, and the legacy of this reluctant beauty queen over 20 years later.
When a terrorist threat forces FBI agent Gracie Hart to become the beauty queen no one ever thought she could be, her transformation is framed as an uplifting tale of self-discovery and female bonding. But looking back, some of the film’s messages are less than inspirational: Looks are prioritized over personality, workplace harassment goes unchallenged, and there’s an implication that, since you can’t beat misogynistic gender norms, you might as well join them. These toxic takeaways in fact aged so poorly that the sequel, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, tried to rectify them a few years later. Still, there’s a lot that this movie gets right that explains why it still holds a place in our hearts: it champions female friendships, stresses the importance of having priorities outside of work, and encourages women to stand up for themselves.
Grace Hart: “This experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.” - Miss Congeniality
Here’s our take on the mixed messages of Miss Congeniality, and the legacy of this reluctant beauty queen over 20 years later.
Toxic Takeaway #1: Boys Will Be Boys
Workplace sexism is rampant in Miss Congeniality, and the film does acknowledge that this is a problem. It shows that Gracie’s hard work goes unnoticed, her boss directly denies her expertise, and male co-workers receive credit for her strategic planning. Miss Congeniality goes to great lengths to show us that male-dominated fields can create a culture of locker room talk, and encourages us to empathize with Gracie’s struggles to fit in. So it often feels like the film is making a point — or about to make one —about the nature of boy’s clubs, but unfortunately, it never follows through on that commentary. Gracie’s “happy ending” of earning respect at work comes through bending to her coworkers’ value systems, by looking and acting the way they think a woman should, and there’s no implication that her male colleagues’ misogyny needs any comeuppance or significant changing. In the scene where male FBI agents literally throw food at pictures of women they find ugly, the film cues audience laughter with upbeat music, and even shows Gracie joining in. And the film muddies whatever message it might have been trying to send about toxic work culture by making those same workplace harassers heroes that we’re rooting for.
The romantic lead, Benjamin Bratt’s Eric Mathews, spends the film hitting on almost every woman he comes across, showing them little respect as human beings, and refusing to take no for an answer. When he falls for Gracie, he claims that it’s because of her personality, not her appearance, but this is difficult to believe. Before she gets a makeover, Eric derides Gracie’s appearance, and suggests she’s not a “real” woman. So even if the movie implies that perhaps he does like her personality all along, it’s clear he feels he can’t act on this until she meets his standards of female attractiveness. At the end, the kiss of this evidently insecure and superficial man who has sexually harassed her at work multiple times is Gracie’s ultimate prize.
Eric Mathews: “You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re easy to talk to when you’re not armed.” - Miss Congeniality
There’s a sense that Gracie’s romantic and professional lives were missing this male validation. And instead of challenging his sexist views or suggesting he needs to learn a lesson, the narrative rewards Eric with a beautiful girlfriend who fulfills the male fantasy of the “cool girl” — someone with the tastes and interests of your male best buddy, in an effortlessly hot female package.
If boys will be boys, the movie tells us that girls need to learn how to cater to those boys. In the opening childhood flashback, a young Gracie learns the hard lesson that a little boy doesn’t want her to rescue him, and at first this scene seems to make the point that it’s sad our world doesn’t value strong women. Yet the lesson the movie ultimately seems to draw from this vignette is that women have to figure out it doesn’t pay to emasculate a man by acting too much like one. Essentially, the film’s approach to sexism is that it’s inevitable so women might as well just play along, look pretty and act like a “conventional woman” in order to avoid drama and setbacks.
Relatedly, the film sends the toxic takeaway that:
Toxic Takeaway #2: Conforming To Gender Roles Will Make You Happy
From a feminist perspective Gracie’s initial defiance of patriarchal norms might be considered impressive; she is physically strong, doesn’t censor herself, doesn’t worry about her weight, and doesn’t let men tell her what to do. However her lack of femininity is not presented as positive within the film. Along with Gracie’s FBI coworkers, we’re subtly encouraged to laugh at or pity her masculine behaviors and unkempt appearance. When her masculine-presenting tendencies aren’t played as a joke, they’re essentially framed as a character flaw — vaguely associated with her stubbornness and resistance to being a team player, all of which Gracie must overcome to achieve happiness.
Interestingly, the film asks us to believe that, before her makeover, Gracie (despite being played by Sandra Bullock) isn’t beautiful due to her disregard for the performance of traditional femininity. The film equates female attractiveness in Gracie’s society with trying to look attractive — through typical patriarchal signifiers of female beauty like form-fitting dresses, makeup, practicing poise and elegant movement, and a thin figure achieved through intensive dieting. Gracie eschewing these things tells us she’s not good-looking. Since Gracie doesn’t have even the most basic knowledge about makeup, there’s even a suggestion that she lacks beauty because she doesn’t know how to obtain it.
If we’re being honest, after the makeover there actually isn’t that major a change in her appearance. While she looks great, the feeling of transformation is heightened by other characters’ over-the-top reactions. Gracie’s change isn’t really from unpretty to pretty, but from a woman who doesn’t wear makeup to one who removes all the hair from her body. She has embraced conventional gender expression and trying to be pretty; it’s this choice to subscribe to femininity that makes her beautiful, and therefore acceptable in her society’s eyes.
Kathy Morningside: “When I met you, Dennis Rodman looked better in a dress. But.. but now, you’re a lady!” - Miss Congeniality
Most disappointingly, the feminist independence and defiance of gender norms that Gracie displays at the beginning of the film are revealed to not be founded on moral beliefs but on insecurity. Her issues with beauty contests apparently stem from a place of self-doubt, because after her transformation she denies that the pageant is demeaning in any way. Here the film portrays Gracie — and many feminist women — in a condescending light, playing into the Straw Feminist trope (a cartoonish portrayal of a feminist that’s there to be mocked or have her flimsy arguments easily dismissed). Miss Congeniality implies that anyone who finds something to criticize about beauty pageants must be doing so out of ignorance or jealousy. And it paints Gracie’s makeover as a gift.
At the beginning of the film, Gracie is clearly feeling unfulfilled. And while this may be in large part due to problems with her culture, the solution to those problems turns out to be fixing her; once she goes with the flow of the norms she has been resisting, she finally begins to feel happy. And her success is directly linked with her adoption of gender roles. She’s allowed to
be a winner, as long as her victory doesn’t challenge the patriarchal status quo. Essentially, Miss Congeniality suggests the best way to respond to living in a toxic patriarchal society is to become beautiful.
Toxic Takeaway #3 - Homophobia as a punchline
Similar to the way that sexism is dealt with within the film, homophobia is vaguely acknowledged as bad, but is also presented as funny depending on the situation. Eric is consistently homophobic towards Victor which not only remains unchallenged, but is also used as a joke whenever he is made uncomfortable by Victor’s interest in him. Rigid gender roles are again reinforced when Eric is humiliated by his co-workers using FBI software to put a digital dress onto his body.
When Karen, Miss New York, comes out on stage, she is instantly silenced. But aside from a fairly distasteful joke and a brief moment of Gracie showing support, this protest is quickly dropped.
The film deals with other societal problems like eating disorders in much the same way: mentioning them, but not really caring enough to follow up, deal with them, or insist on structural change. Still, the movie counters this unfortunate message with the meaningful one that:
Meaningful Message # 1 - Women Should Support (ALL) Women
Gracie is wrong to dismiss the women in the beauty pageant, and a key tenant of Miss Congeniality is that women should support women, including those who don’t necessarily share their exact tastes and values.
Grace Hart: “These women are smart, terrific people who are just trying to make a difference in the world.” - Miss Congeniality
Gracie originally judges and belittles the pageant contestants, mainly because they’ve embraced their traditionally feminine attractiveness — which she assumes equates with not having smarts or depth. But just as it’s wrong for her coworkers to dismiss her for seeming too masculine, it’s equally unfair and damaging to condemn women who choose to present as hyperfeminine. By the end of the film Gracie regrets assuming that the other women were vapid just because they didn’t make her choices, and she respects them for all the ways they are similar and different from her.
Meaningful Message #2: Being a Good Friend is Everything
Overcoming her bias rewards Gracie with what the movie underlines is the best prize of all: genuine female friendships.
The best evidence that female friendships are at the heart of this film lies in its title: the women present Gracie with the title “Miss Congeniality,” literally defining her as a supportive friend. But the movie’s idea of what being a great friend to other women means entails more than just acceptance or superficial amiability; what makes Gracie so “congenial” is actually that she channels the ferocity at the core of her being in order to protect her friends and help them push to be their strongest possible selves.
Meaningful Message #3 - Believe Women
The film also gets another crucial message right: that we should believe women who open up about assault.
When Cheryl confides in Gracie about her assault, she reveals that she has never told anybody else, addressing the very real fear that women have about coming forward. She then goes on to minimize her experience, also a realistic portrayal of a common trauma response among survivors, but this does not stop Gracie from believing her. The exchange inspires Gracie to teach all of the women at the pageant, and those viewing at home, how to defend themselves. It’s an empowering scene, where Gracie reclaims her strength and inspires other women to do the same. On top of this, the audience goes wild for her ability to fight, creating a key moment in the film in which a woman’s strength is valued and respected.
Gracie also learns the important message that:
Meaningful Message #4 : There’s More to Life than Work
Gracie is a textbook workaholic, and her passion for her job is her whole identity. She’s eager to help in any way she can, spends her free time working on skills that will improve her job performance, and even outfits her personal car for work. Though her devotion is admirable, it leaves little time and energy for anything else, and her life is devoid of meaningful relationships. Gracie tries to hide her insecurities about her lack of social life, but it’s clear that its absence affects her. It isn’t until she starts to connect with other people that she can reach her full potential, in terms of both her personal happiness and her job.
Grace Hart: “For the first time in my life I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time…”
- Miss Congeniality
Meaningful Message #5 - Learn From Your Mistakes in The Sequel
After the mistakes of Miss Congeniality, the film’s sequel aimed to right some of its wrongs five years later. Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous opens with Gracie being dumped by Agent Mathews, and becoming obsessed with her appearance as a way to cope. The film criticizes her superficiality by showing that it’s taken away some of her most loveable qualities.
The rest of the film focuses on her rediscovering her deeper self and her independence, by returning to her strength and rebellious attitude. It also follows her newfound friendship with Sam, an agent who is as outcast as Gracie was at the start of the first movie. But significantly, the narrative never asks Sam to change or give up her conventionally masculine qualities; in fact, she’s the driving force in helping Gracie return to her own.
Gracie and Cheryl’s continued relationship is also a main plot point, reinforcing the importance of female friendships, but this time giving them primary importance over romantic relationships with men.
In the final moments, Gracie tracks down a young girl she blew off in the beginning of the movie because she was too self-involved and makes sure to tell her (and the audience) that she was wrong about prioritizing her appearance and other people’s opinions.
Grace Hart: “People may care about people who care about themselves, but I just don’t really care about those people.” - Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
The sequel also provides an alternative to the crass misogynistic male characters that we met in the original. One of the leading men is a sensitive and sincere agent who respects the woman he is dating.
So overall, not only does Miss Congeniality 2 offer more positive representation, but it also sends the inspiring message that movies can progress and learn from their mistakes.
It’s impossible to do justice to the conversation of Miss Congeniality’s takeaways without remembering the time in which this film was made. The early 2000s were an era when the widespread mentality of post-feminism suggested that all-important feminist goals had already been achieved, while also villainizing vocal feminists and denying any need for an ongoing fight against sexism.
So for a studio movie produced in 2000, it’s notable at least that the film depicts these realities and empathizes with those being bullied or marginalized. Through its sequel — and the improving representation of women today, with more than half of modern movies passing the Bechdel test — we can see how aspects of Miss Congeniality laid the groundwork for progress.
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