Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Miss USA Controversy
(5/26/2009)

You can find complex ethical controversies in the stupidest places.

Few could be stupider than the Miss USA Pageant, a beauty contest that gradually overtook the hopelessly square Miss America Pageant because the women were more attractive and the show never pretended to be anything more than a “drool at sexy babes in bikinis” spectacle. The problem is that the name “Miss USA” inherently carries more weight than the title deserves: Miss USA represents the United States in the equally silly Miss Universe competition, but she still carries that name. Miss USA, usually an uncommonly gorgeous young woman of freakishly perfect dimensions, with an IQ hovering between 85 and 110, is only qualified to represent that the country can raise some impressive cover girls and that’s it, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, because of the name, she had better not possess a racy past or a controversial present that clashes with current American cultural standards. She had better not have a drug-dealing police rap sheet, or belong to a white supremacy organization, or be dating an ungulate. She is, after all, Miss USA.

Those extremes aside, however, Miss USA contestants are only on notice that they have to look terrific and be able to complete a couple of sentences articulately enough to do the occasional ship-launching or infomercial. That’s it. She is not going to have to explain in detail how to solve the economic crisis or hold forth on the ethics of stem cell research.

Or so we thought. But Donald Trump, who owns the pageant, decided to boost ratings by hiring as a pageant judge one Perez Hilton, the pugnaciously gay gossip-blogger whose primary goals in life are to make himself a celebrity and make every other celebrity miserable in the process. Given a chance to ask a question of Miss California, Hilton decided to make her the target of all the rage still simmering against the voters of California for rejecting the legalization of gay marriage at the ballot box in November. He asked her whether other states should follow Vermont’s lead and legalize same-sex marriage, knowing well that she regarded herself as a Christian, making it a good bet that she was conservative as well.

You have to hand it to Hilton. He couldn’t lose. If Miss California decried the majority decision of her state in a coast-to-coast broadcast, he would have achieved a PR coup for the ongoing battle for same-sex marriages. If she came out against gay marriage, her argument would be an easy target for him and others, especially since beauty queens are often so inarticulate that they can make world peace and curing hunger sound like flawed concepts. Carrie Prejean, a.k.a. Miss California, to her credit, did not take the Fifth Amendment or give the answer she had to know Hilton and most of her audience probably wanted to hear. She said this:

Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you could choose “same-sex marriage” or opposite marriage. And, you know what? In my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I think that it should be, between a man and a woman.

Not too bad for a 20-year-old beauty queen taking a spontaneous shot at a question far, far above her pay grade, and on national television to boot. Her answer got the predictable cheers and boos, she was runner-up in the final tally, and then Hilton’s carefully constructed bomb exploded. Her words were debated, condemned, praised and dissected on-line, on television and around water-coolers everywhere. She was called everything from a bigot to a champion of family values, to a fool. Hilton and Trump got what they both crave, notoriety and attention. Prejean got paid speaking engagements in front of conservative groups, so many that she ended up defaulting on her Miss California obligations.

The ethics scores, please!

Miss California: The post-show comments of Hilton and others to the contrary, there was nothing unethical or offensive about Miss California’s answer. Gay marriage advocates are quite right that they should have the right to marry, but quite wrong to hold that anyone who still subscribes to the definition of marriage that was unquestioned for a couple thousand years is a per se bigot or some kind of oppressive fool. There is a major cultural shift under way on this issue, and it is happening with record speed. Those who are slow to accept a new concept should not be insulted and bullied. It isn’t just Prejean who was raised with the concept that marriage was an institution reserved for a man and a woman: virtually everyone alive, including Perez Hilton, was. Many of us have come to believe otherwise, but that doesn’t mean everyone who still embraces traditional definitions is ethically obligated to agree. Prejean answered an unfairly loaded question honestly and courageously. She was asked for her opinion, and gave it.

Once her answer made her the darling of the anti-gay marriage movement, however, she had a choice to make, and botched it. Prejean kept appearing at politically-motivated events to talk about her views on marriage while carrying the title of Miss California. Sorry, kid…using an official position, even a silly one, for a personal agenda is a clear ethical no-no.

The Miss USA Competition: Ethics foul. There should have been some criteria for questions, and some mechanism for declaring a question like Hilton’s out of bounds. It reminded me of the bridge scene in Monte Python and the Holy Grail, where one knight is asked “What is your favorite color?” to gain safe passage across the ravine, and the next knight is asked, “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Hilton’s question was outrageously unfair, and the no fair and responsible competition would have permitted it. (True, no fair and responsible competition would have someone like Perez Hilton as a judge.) And if, as many believe, Prejean’s politically incorrect answer had anything to do with her failing to be named Miss U.S.A., Trump’s meat show is a disgrace. This isn’t a presidential primary, and the women have never been judged according to their social, foreign, or economic policies. To suddenly change the rules mid-competition shows a complete lack of integrity, and to require any ideological litmus test violates the ideals of the USA that the pageant supposedly represents.

One common criticism leveled at Trump in the wake of the controversy was both bigoted and wrong, however: that it is somehow inappropriate for a gay man to serve as a judge in a female beauty pageant. A gay man can appreciate and quantify female beauty as well as any heterosexual man; the substantial number of brilliant and successful fashion designers and make-up artists who are gay would indicate that to anyone. Now, I personally think that the particular gay man in question, Perez Hilton, isn’t trustworthy enough to judge a pie-eating contest, but that’s a different issue.

Perez Hilton: Surprise! I have some sympathy for Hilton’s conduct in asking the loaded question. Yes, he was brutally unfair to Miss California. His conduct fails the Golden Rule and violates the core ethical principle that it is wrong to use other human beings to secure personal goals. There is a strong case to be made that Hilton’s larger objective---calling attention to the unequal treatment of gay Americans under marital laws---is worth a lost Miss USA title and some unwanted scrutiny of a beauty queen. Hilton’s cause was just, and his tactic of hijacking a televised beauty pageant of dubious cultural value to accomplish it might be a case of the end justifying the means. One could even argue that he knew nobody would be hurt: the pageant got publicity that will undoubtedly help next year’s ratings; Trump got buzz for his product, which is what he lives for; it was even predictable that the victimized Miss California would be able to cash in on her fame, and become, as she has, the new star of the Christian Right and anti-gay marriage movement.

Hilton is, unfortunately, an irredeemable creep, and my ethical arguments for his actions must remain theoretical only. He responded to Prejean’s answer with an obscene and ugly rant on his blog, and his public arguments for why her answer should have disqualified her to be Miss USA can charitably be described as idiotic. Hilton, in his various televised appearances, maintained that 1) Prejean should have "left her politics and her religion out because Miss USA represents all Americans" and 2) that her views didn’t represent the majority sentiments of her fellow Americans. His first contention is disingenuous and makes no sense, for she was asked what she believed, and religion is a legitimate component of belief. Was she supposed to lie? Moreover, the question could not be answered apolitically, for it is a politically significant question. His second argument is factually wrong. Miss California’s answer accurately conveyed what the voters of California emphatically stated was their position when they rejected gay marriage at the ballot box. Meanwhile, the majority opinion of most Americans on the issue of same-sex marriage is far from clear. (Hilton also revealed himself in various appearances to be almost frighteningly uneducated. At one point, debating a radio talk show host, he proclaimed that “this is a civil rights issue, like Rosa Parks and the Underground Rainroad.” Or like Pert Parks and Thomas the Tank Engine…)

Something valuable, like a coherent and civil national discussion about a difficult cultural transition, might have come out of this fiasco. However, thanks to the shallowness and crudeness of its main instigator, Hilton, the results have only been more polarization on the issue of same sex marriage, little substance, and some extra cash, and publicity for a beauty pageant, a moronic blogger, a publicity-hound wheeler-dealer and a beauty queen.

Is this a great country, or what?

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