Lessons from a beauty pageant

Poor Carrie Prejean. The dethroned Miss California USA, who won the admiration of family values America for defending marriage in front of the nation, is sinking in the mire of a sex scandal. Not the sort that has dragged greater stars from the public firmament -- the marital infidelities of an Eliot Spitzer, a Mark Sanford or a Mel Gibson. No. What the 22-year-old did a few years ago was something much less, but also something utterly incongruous with the Christian identity that she has owned in public. In essence, she made a pornographic video of herself and sent it to her boyfriend.

This is very sad. She made, as she admits, a big mistake, of a type that large numbers of young people are now making and advertising through the internet. But it has to be said that there is an awful lot of hypocrisy in the way this revelation has been treated in the media. The content, basically, is no more than certain mainstream sex education programmes prescribe for adolescents, and probably less than what the video censor passes for public consumption. If Carrie was just another young model or entertainer her moral lapse would hardly have raised an eyebrow.

But, thanks to a gay gossip columnist and his question about same-sex marriage during the Miss USA contest back in April, Carrie was already a controversial public figure. To her great credit, when unexpectedly asked whether she supported California’s gay marriage ban, she said clearly that she believed “marriage should be between a man and a woman”. She allowed that others could choose differently, but she would stick to what she had been brought up to believe. Everything that has happened since, for better or for worse, has flowed from that honest declaration.

For better: She has been embraced by national pro-marriage and family organisations who wanted to reassure her that she did the right thing and to capitalise on her public profile to sell their message. Carrie quickly became the glamorous, youthful face of family values, appearing in advertisements and various promotions.

For worse: She became the target of a tide of abuse from parts of the gay and anti-Christian constituencies, followed by the leaking of modelling photos that showed her topless (and practically bottomless) and that not only looked bad for a Christian girl but contravened her contract with the outfit running Miss California USA, K2 Productions. On that pretext and others she was dethroned from her position as first runner-up to the Miss USA title. Her attempt to sue them for, among other things, religious discrimination came to an abrupt halt early this month when her sex video got into the hands of K2’s lawyers.

Net result for family values? Right now, the scorecard is not looking good. The big-budget organisations that have backed her until now have, understandably, gone quiet. The New Jersey Family Policy Council cancelled her appearance at their Defenders of the Family
event last week

But, truth to tell, were they not all along skating on thin ice in their waltz with the young beauty queen who modelled barely-there underwear, agreed to breast augmentation (at the suggestion of K2 boss Keith Lewis) and conformed to standard pageant rules by parading around the stage in a bikini and heels? Is this the image of womanhood that will launch a thousand good and lasting marriages?

The pageant industry -- whose ridiculous contract with entrants specifies that they must not have been photographed “in a state of partial or total nudity” (what else is the bikini routine?) and that their behaviour has conformed with “the highest ethical and moral standards” -- can pretend that there is a moral difference between appearing in the most diminutive of bikinis and going altogether topless, but this is not a game that people who are serious about respect for sex and family life should play.

Beauty pageants, in their current form at least, are beneath the dignity of both women and men. Despite a thin veneer of patriotism and culture, they are all about sex -- women advertising themselves as sexual objects and men either buying the product or (Donald Trump) reaping the profits. They are a symptom of the social pathology undermining marriage and family life and it makes no sense for family advocates to endorse them in any way. By all means acknowledge and praise a Carrie Prejean for what she gets right, but don’t make a heroine of a young woman who is a confused and ambiguous role model.

There also seems to be a message in this saga for the Christian community. Carrie Prejean, the child of a Christian family, an active member of a church and a student at a Christian college, has a very inadequate grasp of the dignity of sex and appropriate ways of expressing sexuality. I am not talking here about the porn video, which she obviously regrets, but about the regular modelling and parading in next to nothing that, while it reveals so much of the body, totally eclipses the soul, which is the source of true beauty.

Are pastors and Christian professors too obsessed with the idea that “we are mainstream too” to notice what is happening to young women like Carrie -- the dangerous disjuncture between beliefs and behaviour, the message and the medium, that could land them in much private unhappiness if not public disrepute?

As Carrie says, she is not perfect. No-one is perfect. Anyone can do bad things, or dumb things. Nothing really tragic in that. The only tragedy is not knowing how to avoid them because people who should know don’t tell you.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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