Keywords: femininity, gender performance, drag, pageant, post-feminism, Little Miss Sunshine, Dumplin’
“There’s an absurdity involved in wearing a bathing suit with heels,” says Kimberly H. Hamlin, author of an article on the first years of the Miss America beauty pageant. “Are we supposed to actually do something in a swimsuit or just look good?” (qtd. in Bernard). According to the pageant industry, it’s the latter. Pageant films don’t say any differently, highlighting the rigorous discipline required to even be a contestant, let alone to wear the crown. From thriller-comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous (Jann, 1999) and the everlasting Miss Congeniality (Petrie, 2000) to roller derby drama Whip It (Barrymore, 2009), the pageant industry’s high standards of femininity are exemplified through women who threaten to transgress them. Little Miss Sunshine (Faris and Dayton, 2006) and Dumplin’ (Fletcher, 2018) are no exception, featuring main characters who challenge these expectations, whether or not they intend to do so. Through the talent category of the pageant in each film, Olive (Abigail Breslin) and Will (Danielle Macdonald) expose gender as a performance, simultaneously transgressing the pageant’s definition of femininity and exuding to-be-looked-at-ness; furthermore, each film critiques sexism while engaging with post-feminism, albeit to different extents.
Since the first Miss America pageant in 1921, the industry has performed a specific type of femininity. As Sarah Banet-Weiser and Laura Portwood-Stacer articulate in their article “I just want to be me again!,” the pageant functions as a “vital source of knowledge for many young women about the disciplinary practices of femininity” (257). From shaving their legs to styling their hair and makeup, contestants are required to consistently look their best, as measured by the high standards of femininity that our patriarchal society demands. Furthermore, the pageant as an institution “[serves] to represent an ideal femininity that embodies very specific classed, raced, and sexualized gender performances” (Esposito and Happel 42) and, on the stage, this aspect of performance is amplified. According to Judith Butler, gender theorist and philosopher, gender is “an identity constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (402, original emphasis). She goes on to describe how gender is defined by its performance:
Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. (Butler 405)
The aforementioned definition of femininity is curated through highly regulated acts in the world of beauty pageants, from precisely putting on layers of makeup to walking across a stage in stiletto heels. The main characters in Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ perform their gender in a way that transgresses the pageant’s expectations of femininity, and in choosing to do so in the talent portion of the competition, this gender transgression is further emphasized. The talent round is the only portion of the pageant where a single contestant is on stage, therefore putting all of the attention on them; it’s also the only portion where bending the rules of femininity and standard composure is remotely acceptable, allowing contestants to showcase theatrical talents like ventriloquism or playing water glasses, as shown in Miss Congeniality. Since this round is a performance in and of itself, it echoes Butler’s argument that gender is a performance and functions as the most societally acceptable setting for the main characters’ actions, despite the consequences that occur.
Little Miss Sunshine follows ten-year-old Olive, who enters the eponymous beauty pageant in California; when her dysfunctional family embarks on a road trip to get her there on time, chaos ensues. Through her masculine attire and hypersexualized dance during the talent round, Olive “disrupts normative gender expectations and behaviors by performing her gender in transgressive ways at the pageant” (Esposito and Happel 38). Before taking the stage, she replaces her signature glasses with a black top hat, trading one masculine symbol for another (1:28:53). In wearing glasses, Olive embodies the woman who looks, “[signifying] simultaneously intellectuality and undesirability; but the moment she removes her glasses… she is transformed into spectacle, the very picture of desire” (Doane 139). Her actions represent the pageant’s sexualization of its contestants, no matter their age; despite the fact that Olive and the girls competing for the title of Little Miss Sunshine are children, they are still expected to live up to the established expectations of beauty queens. As a masculine symbol in holding the ability to gaze, glasses diminish femininity, which cannot be tolerated on the pageant stage. The pageant’s high standards pressure Olive to embody femininity to the best of her ability, so she removes her glasses, therefore signifying her attempt to conform to these expectations and her status as an object of the male gaze held by the audience.
However, Olive immediately replaces her glasses with a top hat, which allows her to transgress the pageant’s gender standards in another way. Commonly associated with magic and masculinity, top hats connote a sense of power, similar to glasses; while the latter isn’t allowed on the stage, the former can be perceived as a cute accessory, almost like a child wearing her mother’s too-big high heels. The top hat is just the final touch on her outfit, which includes a black vest and pair of pants, white collared shirt, and bright red tie, all of which connote masculinity. As we see throughout the film, the other contestants wear bright makeup and frilly dresses with sequins, the attire expected of child beauty pageant contestants. In breaking these expectations of femininity through her attire, Olive transgresses the gender standards of the pageant industry, therefore exposing the absurdity of these demands.
Furthermore, Olive’s hypersexualized talent performance offers an ironic commentary on the pageant’s sexualization of its contestants (1:30:00-1:35:25). She begins facing with her back to the audience, long hair hanging past her waist and emphasizing her femininity; at this point, the camera takes on the gaze of the crowd, cutting to a reverse shot from the other side of Olive when she clasps her hands above her head and smiles (see Figure 1). In allowing viewers to see her face in this moment, before her dance has even truly begun, Faris and Dayton make it clear that she is enjoying herself—and that to her, it’s all just a great deal of fun. The camerawork continues to alternate between the gaze of the audience, shots from behind Olive facing into the crowd, and close-ups of her family members. Olive proceeds to toss her top hat off-stage, gradually strip her clothes, crawl across the stage like a lion, and throw her tie at the judges. As audience members leave and the announcer attempts to corral her off-stage, followed by her male family members fighting with him in protest, Olive runs around in circles and continues to dance. As Jennifer Esposito and Alison Happel argue in their essay, “Pageant Trouble: An Exploration of Gender Transgression in Little Miss Sunshine”: “What is sinister about the pageant officials ‘policing’ the sexualization of Olive’s performance is that the sanctioned femininity relied on sexual undertones as well” (51). In trying to stop her performance, the announcer symbolizes the pageant industry’s aversion to sexualizing children, despite the fact that it does so in ways that mainstream media condones. This includes the use of short skirts, full faces of makeup, volumized hair, and high heels, all for the purpose of defining femininity and meeting these high standards. Regardless of the sexual undertones the pageant harbors, it “remains irrevocably connected to a particular Puritan ideal of sex and sexuality” (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer 261), and therefore rejects Olive’s “bad girl” performance (see Figure 2).
Throughout her entire performance, the camera takes on different gazes of the audience, judges, and a third position from behind Olive, but viewers are never sutured into her own gaze directly. While we come close to doing so through the camera positioning itself to look out into the audience, we aren’t fully put into her position as viewers. In making this decision, Faris and Dayton allow for more shots of Olive’s happy smile, conveying the extent to which she is enjoying the dance; this also functions almost like a slap in the face to the pageant industry, which tried to impose its standards onto her. Furthermore, by reserving Olive’s gaze, the directors place the spectator in the role of audience member among the crowd, emphasizing Olive’s outward expression of emotion as opposed to the inward pressure and stress the pageant industry inflicts upon her. Faris and Dayton focus on her sexualized performance and the function of gender within it, as opposed to the emotional effects the industry places on its contestants. It is Olive’s interruption in the pageant’s façade that “effectively exposes all of gender as a performance, especially as a socially and culturally mediated performance” (Esposito and Happel 51). This interruption results in punishment for Olive, because her “bad girl” behavior is considered inappropriate and against what the pageant committee claims to stand for; after the fiasco, Olive and her family are taken to the police station, where they are told they can leave as long as they never enter Olive into a beauty pageant in California again.
Similar to Little Miss Sunshine, the Netflix film Dumplin’ also focuses on the pageant industry and gender performance. Plus-size teenager Willowdean enters her former beauty queen mother’s pageant as a protest to the institution, which escalates when her friends follow her lead. While her mother calls her “Dumplin’,” Willowdean prefers to go by “Will,” foreshadowing the gender transgression that comes later in the film. With her aunt’s recent passing, Will retreats into their shared love of Dolly Parton, who greatly influences her talent performance and personal growth throughout the film. In order to feel closer to her, Will visits The Hideaway, a bar that her aunt used to go to, only to discover that the establishment hosts Dolly-themed drag shows. The queens become her support system, giving her the tools necessary to “figure out who she is and do it on purpose,” as her idol once said; Will does so not only in life but on the pageant stage, choosing to be her fabulous self as opposed to trying to win or conform. When Will and her friends bring boxes of clothes to the bar, queens Candee (Ginger Minj) and Rhea (Harold Perrineau) teach them how to dance, put together outfits, and do magic tricks with silk scarves (1:08:30-1:11:32). Rhea envisions a formal outfit with sequins and a feathered collar for Will, and Candee asks the girls, “Are you ready to find out what it takes to be a real pageant queen?” Through all of these actions, the queens show them that “‘ideal’ femininity is actually just successful drag” (Welton 22), which Will embodies in her talent performance.
Through her talent wardrobe, which echoes Olive’s in Little Miss Sunshine, Will simultaneously performs femininity defined as successful drag and transgresses the pageant’s gender expectations (1:27:40-1:30:17). She wears a shimmering red top and long black cape, both covered in sparkles, and her voluminous hair and full face of makeup catch the light, much like standard drag attire. Not only does Will dress the part of a drag queen, but she acts it, too—she lip syncs to Dolly’s “Here You Come Again” while performing choreographed dance moves, all which are regularly incorporated into drag. Her magic tricks function as the comic relief portion of a drag performance, which usually consists of outrageous gestures and movements or making jokes. Furthermore, the crowd consistently cheers and a bright spotlight shines on Will throughout her performance, echoing the previous drag shows in the film. Alongside this presence of femininity, Will also manages to transgress the pageant’s standards by wearing pants, a top hat, a bow tie, and a knotted string acting as a second bow tie, all which connote masculinity; besides her face, neck, and hands, all of her skin is covered, unlike the other contestants who wear short dresses (see Figure 3). Within the first few moments of her performance, she tosses her top hat to the side to put emphasis on her hair, much like Olive did. However, her gender transgression is put in a more positive light—the audience cheers throughout and gives a standing ovation. We hear comments like “How does she do it?” from her friend Millie (Maddie Baillio) and “I like it” with a smile from the judges. The camera takes on the gaze of the audience through the majority of her performance, highlighting how captivated the viewers are; therefore, as spectators, we take on the persona of the audience, entranced by Will’s continuous eye contact and confident movements. When her performance is complete, she throws streamers at the camera positioned in the audience (and therefore at us as spectators) and clapping ensues, further implying how wonderfully her act is perceived.
The camera cuts to a close-up of Will’s smiling face looking over her shoulder, radiant in the slightly blue spotlight. Her face is remarkably pale, lips ruby red, and teeth perfectly white. Her smooth complexion, black mascara, and voluminous hair are front and center, exemplifying everything the pageant says a woman should be; the curtain shimmers behind her and the crowd cheers in the background, drawing all attention to Will. Her bow ties cannot be seen in this shot, effectively disrobing her of all masculine qualities and underscoring her femininity. However, since her performance of femininity stems from drag, this shot supports the argument that ideal femininity and successful drag are one in the same. Furthermore, the blue light combined with her sexualized appearance connotes a level of necrophilia,[i] insinuating that this particular version of Will is too perfect for this world; the level of beauty that the pageant expects from its contestants is unattainable, therefore unable to fully exist in our sphere (see Figure 4).
In the end, it’s revealed that Will’s song choice and talent wardrobe weren’t approved, as well as her formal outfit, and any changes after committee approvals result in immediate disqualification. Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), her mother, says that she can’t walk in the final round because it “wouldn’t be fair to the other girls,” so Will becomes disqualified from the competition regardless of the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction. Both Olive and Will have repercussions for their gender performance and transgression, signifying that even though some may have enjoyed it (Olive’s family and Will’s audience), their actions are ultimately unacceptable.
The sentiment that ideal femininity is drag is further emphasized through Rosie’s attire when she announces the final results of the pageant (1:37:55-1:39:44). When her dress is unexpectedly too small, Rhea lends her one of the Dolly outfits she had in her trunk—a short, shimmery, bright blue dress with a long-sleeved, floor-length feathered robe. Rosie is slightly reluctant to wear it, but without any other option, she has to; as a former beauty queen and the embodiment of the industry’s high standards of femininity throughout the film, her hesitation is clear. When she crosses the stage, the camera tilts up and down her body, from silver heels to the tiara upon her head. This sexualization isn’t present when Will is featured, highlighting Rosie’s desirability and possession of feminine traits. In the crowd, Rhea even asks Candee, “Do I look that good in that dress?” and gets a no in response. The audience laughs, indicating their questioning of Rosie’s outfit, to which she shakes her head and raises her hands, playing into it; instead of commenting, however, she launches into her formal remarks. The outfit is everything drag embodies, and in wearing it to crown the winner of a pageant that supports traditional standards of femininity, the former beauty queen effectively equates the two.
While Will isn’t allowed to walk as a contestant, she’s permitted to escort her friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) on-stage, which she does in her unapproved bright red sparkly gown and feathered collar. After walking her friend to center stage to pose for the audience, Will stands next to her mother and the two clasp hands, smiling in solidarity. The camera cuts to a close-up of their laughing faces and, as Will moves to escort Ellen to her position on the platform, then cuts to a long shot showing the entirety of the stage. In stark contrast to Will and Rosie’s colorful gowns, the two contestants standing on the platform wear white dresses, further highlighting the mother and daughter duo. Standing side by side in their fabulous outfits, the two women further prove that “‘ideal’ femininity is actually just successful drag” (Welton 22) and therefore ultimately a performance.
Before the talent round, the Miss Teen Bluebonnet competition includes a “health and fitness round,” otherwise known as the swimsuit portion. Certainly the most sexualized round of the beauty pageant, the swimsuit competition puts women’s bodies on display, reinforcing the pageant’s expectations of discipline toward femininity and exuding to-be-looked-at-ness. As Laura Mulvey articulates, “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” (63). This portion “[encourages] audiences to focus relentlessly on the visual character of women’s bodies” (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer 258) and, as a consequence of these rigorous standards, many pageant contestants have eating disorders (Gilbert). In June 2018, Miss America decided to cut the swimsuit round, replacing it with an interview portion on each contestant’s passions and what wearing the crown means to them (Stewart). Rebranded as Miss America 2.0 and no longer a pageant but a competition, the organization claims to be inclusive with entry requirements stating nothing about weight or size, only that contestants must be in “reasonably good health” (“Become a Candidate”). As Millie states in Dumplin’, “There’s nothing in the rules that says big girls need not apply.”
It is with this attitude that Will and Ellen take the stage in matching one-piece swimsuits, duct tape on their stomachs spelling out the phrase, “Every body is a swimsuit body” (1:25:28-1:26:24). Considered a rebellious move for a film that’s “characterized more by homespun charm than progressive politics” (Gilbert), the women’s decision causes a small fracture in the pageant industry’s carefully orchestrated definition of femininity. The camera doesn’t tilt or sexualize their bodies, simply showing the women standing side by side and then cutting to the audience, which claps and gives a standing ovation; after they exit the stage, the announcer even says, “Aren’t those girls amazing?” While their reaction defies the stereotype that everyone involved in pageants is unsupportive and catty, it frankly seems too positive.
Dumplin’ holds an open-mindedness that other more critical pageant films do not—it seeks to redefine beauty with a body-positive mindset, as opposed to abolishing beauty pageants all together. In their article, Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer claim that women are portrayed more positively in recent consumer media, but these changes are “part of aggressive new market strategies rather than indications of social and political changes within dominant gender relations in the US” (260). In featuring plus-size main characters who compete in pageants, Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ broadcast body-positive messages, but neither film critically questions how societal ideals of femininity came to be. Rather, they take on post-feminism to different extents, emphasizing the ability of women to make individual choices. While Little Miss Sunshine was released in an age that says critiquing sexism is unnecessary, Dumplin’ is surrounded by discourse that encourages and advocates for this critical thinking, and each film responds accordingly.
According to Rosalind Gill, post-feminism is a “sensibility” that includes a number of notions, such as the following: “femininity is a bodily property; … the emphasis on self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline; a focus upon individualism, choice and empowerment; [and] the dominance of a makeover paradigm” (137). Esposito and Happel argue that Little Miss Sunshine was created in a “post-feminist climate that… [asserts] that social critiques of sexism and patriarchy are unnecessary” (39), focusing instead on women’s status as free agents and ability to make choices as they wish. The film strikes a careful balance between critiquing the sexism within the pageant industry too much and not critiquing it at all. Sheryl (Toni Collette), Olive’s mother, embodies the ideal of individual choice through ignoring the political connotations of the pageant and believing that the only important thing is her daughter’s individual decision to participate. Before Olive goes on stage, the men in her family tell Sheryl that they want her to quit the pageant, and she insists otherwise, saying, “You’ve gotta let Olive be Olive.” While this directly speaks to post-feminism, the overt sexualized nature of Olive’s performance functions as a critique of sexism. In making her act hypersexualized, Olive draws attention to the objectification of women in the pageant industry, therefore critiquing its messages. Through centering the film on Olive’s choices and presenting her hypersexualized performance as ridiculous because she doesn’t understand why it’s “inappropriate,” the film critiques sexism under the guise of post-feminism.
On the other hand, while Will and her friends seek to “subvert the system from within” (Gilbert) in Dumplin’, their goal isn’t to demolish pageants entirely—rather, to redefine beauty. In acknowledging and protesting the pageant’s issues, the film strays away from post-feminism; at one point during her initial audition, unconventional feminist Hannah chants on stage, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, patriarchy has got to go!” In opposing post-feminism’s notion that sexism shouldn’t be critiqued by openly critiquing it, Dumplin’ is in direct opposition to post-feminism in a way that Little Miss Sunshine is not. However, because its body-positive mindset centers on Will and Millie’s ability to participate and the support of their fellow contestants, the film leans toward a choice-based attitude. Therefore, while Dumplin’ is further away from a post-feminist mentality than Little Miss Sunshine, the film still leans into the individual empowerment facet of post-feminism.
In conclusion, Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ illustrate that the pageant industry’s definition of femininity is nothing more than a performance. The Miss America crown is “attainable by ‘ordinary’ women,” but only “those who try,” those who check all the boxes (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer). In simultaneously conforming to and transgressing the pageant’s expectations, Olive and Will deconstruct the notion of ideal femininity, showing that a certain kind of magic lies in figuring out who you are and doing it on purpose—all because you have the choice to do so. The patriarchy might not like it, though.
Banet-Weiser, Sarah, and Laura Portwood-Stacer. “‘I just want to be me again!’” Feminist Theory, vol. 7, no. 2, Aug. 2006, pp. 255-272. Gender Studies Database, doi:10.1177/1464700106064423.
“Become a Candidate.” Miss America 2.0, 2019, https://www.missamerica.org/sign-up/.
Bernard, Diane. “Swimsuits Are Gone from Miss America, but the Relationship Was Always Complicated.” Washington Post, 9 Sept. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/09/09/swimsuits-are-gone-from-miss-america-but-the-relationship-was-always-complicated/?utm_term=.8528c3bb0c35. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, edited by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, Columbia UP, 1997, pp. 401-417.
Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator.” Feminist Film Theory, edited by Sue Thornham, New York UP, 1999, pp. 131-145.
Dumplin’. Directed by Anne Fletcher, Netflix, 2018.
Esposito, Jennifer, and Alison Happel. “Pageant Trouble: An Exploration of Gender Transgression in Little Miss Sunshine.” Gender Forum, vol. 46, 2013, pp. 38-54. MLA International Bibliography, genderforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2013_Gender_Film_Complete.pdf. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.
Gilbert, Sophie. “What Dumplin’ and Queen America Say About Female Beauty.” The Atlantic, 13 Dec. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/12/what-dumplin-and-queen-america-say-about-female-beauty/577951/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.
Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” The Gender and Media Reader, edited by Mary Celeste Kearney, Routledge, 2012, pp. 136-148.
Little Miss Sunshine. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Fox Searchlight, 2006.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory, edited by Sue Thornham, New York UP, 1999, pp. 58-69.
Stewart, Emily. “Miss America Is Getting Rid of the Swimsuit Competition. It’s a Start.” Vox, 5 June 2018, https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/6/5/17430832/miss-america-swimsuit-gretchen-carlson. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.
Welton, Shirley. “Nobody’s Perfect: Queer Gender Performance in Some Like It Hot and Miss Congeniality.” Film Matters, vol. 2, no. 4, 2011, pp. 18-23. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, doi:10.1386/fm.2.4.18_1. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.
Leah Gaus is a recent graduate of Miami University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and professional writing, as well as a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Her work can be found in The Rumpus, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Watershed Review, and more.
Katie N. Johnson is Professor of English and Affiliate of Film Studies at Miami University. She is the author of Sisters in Sin: Brothel Drama in America and Sex for Sale: Six Progressive-Era Brothel Dramas. Her latest book is about Eugene O’Neill and the breaking of the color line in theatre and film.
The Department of English at Miami University endeavors to prepare students to read and write critically, imaginatively, and effectively. The undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Composition and Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Linguistics, and Literature place this community at the center of liberal arts education at Miami.
[i] For more information about this connotation, please see: Katie N. Johnson, “Consumptive Chic: The Postfeminist Recycling of Camille in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!” Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema: New Takes on Fallen Women, edited by Danielle Hipkins and Kate Taylor-Jones, 2017, pp. 219-240.