Women & Romcoms : Miss Congeniality
Updated: May 8, 2022
An undercover FBI agent tries to stop a terrorist event to take place at the Miss United States beauty pageant contest. Reading the plot, you might wonder where the comedy and the romance come into it. It does not sound like your typical romantic comedy although it ticks more boxes of the genre than expected. The main character Gracie is an FBI agent. She is reckless and very smart. She is one of the boys with her suit and shirt which is the uniform in her office. Who cares if she wears dresses and heels while she saves the country ? How practical are heels to run after criminals ? Not at all. In itself, it is not a bad thing although the film wants it to be because she is not feminine in a beauty pageant way. Her lack of femininity (with femininity understood as wearing dresses, make-up, heels) is considered as abnormal.
© Netflix After a mission that hasn't gone to plan, she is demoted to a desk job while her colleague Eric Matthews ends up at the head of his own task force. It has for mission to arrest a domestic terrorist The Citizen who threatens to bomb the Miss United States beauty pageant. The FBI is then looking for an agent to go undercover. To determine who will go, the agents of Eric's task force are using a computer software allowing them to see how the agents will look like in bathing suits. Of course that's only after Gracie's picture is put in the software and all the men of the office have seen the body type underneath her loose clothes that she is offered the job.
To be fit for the job, a beauty pageant coach Victor Melling - brilliantly played by Michael Caine - is hired to get her ready for the contest. Here comes the classic makeover scene which reveals that the ugly duckling is actually a beautiful white swan. Of course to make that obvious, she could not wear pants afterwards. Gracie had to wear a short tight strapless dress and high heels. Obviously, this is what all the contestant wear. The wish to make the difference is understandable although there is no need for such objectification of Gracie's body as if Melling was for sexy according to men's standards.
Despite that, Miss Congeniality still holds up in 2020 as a feminist film which would not have been possible without Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart. She plays her as a strong, opinionated and unique woman. If Gracie Hart is not a beauty queen, she is an extremely smart, talented and inspiring woman with an amazing job she loves. Girls and women can identify themselves and realise nothing is out of reach. In French, the film title is "Miss Personnalité" which means she is "Miss Character". The word "personnalité" is used to refer to someone with a strong character just like Gracie Hart.
As seen in the picture above, Gracie does not become a beauty queen in daily life. She comes in with her natural wavy hair with slightly more make up than before as she leaves the contest. Even during the contest, she does not sell out and change her personality because this is what others think she should do. She stands out from the polished discourses of other contestants with her glass harp and self-defence skills. If she looks down on this kind of contest for its exploitation of the female body and its enslavement of it to subjective society norms, she learns to appreciate the women competing and create relationships.
Gracie starts off as a lone wolf and ends up being part of a big sisterhood network. This is a very powerful message especially in a context where women are competing against each other. Underneath a superficial setting, Miss Congeniality depicts strong women who defy norms and support each other. By taking on the famous beauty pageant from the contestants' perspective, Miss Congeniality breaks the image of beautiful but naive and dumb that the contestants often have in public opinion.
Miss Congeniality looks critically at the contest and subverts the norms. At various points in the film, videos from previous years are shown to Gracie for her to model her behaviour. It highlights how the contestants are made to conform to one standard. It is made obvious by the montage of the contestants answers to "what is the one most important thing our society needs". All of them answer world peace. Gracie goes for something else and adds at the end "and world peace" as if it was an obligation. By making it obvious, Miss Congeniality offers a critic of this world while celebrating female individuality and friendship.
If overall the film still holds up in 2020, the romance does not. It is obvious that Gracie and Eric are pushed together. The storyline is artificial. He does not look at her before and his behaviour borders on sexual harassment. While they fight, he makes several highly inappropriate gestures like slapping her butt or trying to touch her vagina through her pants. It is also made clear that he sleeps with young female students when he introduces one of them to Gracie at the FBI's lunch place. He only notices her after her makeover. Her behaviour never really changes. She teases him about his behaviour towards her as she sees it change but nothing seems to change for her. They eventually kiss although it does not feel right. He has not supported her decision to keep going with the mission when the order was to give up. Just as the others, he dismissed the evidence she had. He saves his image by coming back at the very end. The romance is unnecessary and feels extremely artificial like it was put in there to make sure it qualified as a romcom. The sisterhood narrative is much more powerful than the romance narrative.
In general, men do not come out well of this film. Willingly or not, the film highlights how appalling men's behaviour can be. Because she is undercover, Gracie wears a hidden camera. When she enters and the contestants are in a bathing suit, their comments about the contestants bodies are uncomfortable and creepy. I do not know if it is a result of watching it in 2020 but it seemed to me these scenes were well handled. Through Gracie, it is shown this is not okay.
Gracie has to wear a two piece bathing suit for one part of the contest. She brings up to the FBI agents listening through her earpiece that others have a one piece and ask why she did not. It sounds like a way of making fun of the film itself because she is wearing that to show her body and break the image of the beginning of the film. Gracie criticizes both the contest and the production. Scenes like this make us understand that it is not the contest in itself that Gracie is against but the exploitation of women for the sake of male approval and pleasure.
Released twenty years ago, Miss Congeniality is a surprisingly feminist film who owes everything to Sandra Bullock. Her interpretation adds complexity and depth where the character could have ended up being stereotypical and flat. She is not only the lead but also the producer of the film which explains why it filled with positivity and female empowerment. She is known for playing fascinating, modern, independent women. Miss Congeniality celebrates it which makes it a must watch for anyone interested in feminism in film. It can be found in the most unexpected places.