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Why Miss Congeniality Is Sandra Bullock’s Magnum Opus

Sandra Bullock on the Miss Congeniality poster.

Sandra Bullock celebrated her 57th birthday yesterday, which is a perfect incentive to celebrate her and her achievements. With a prolific body of work as both an actress and as a producer, Bullock has made considerable moves to forge her own path in the entertainment industry. She has been a producer on many of the films she has starred in and also produced George Lopez’s self-titled ABC sitcom. One of the first feature films she produced was Miss Congeniality, which has cemented itself as a classic that holds up even after twenty years.

The story of Miss Congeniality follows Special Agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) as she goes undercover as Gracie Lou Freebush, the New Jersey contestant in the Miss United States pageant. The pageant had received a bomb threat in a letter claiming to be from a domestic terrorist known as “The Citizen,” though it’s eventually revealed that “The Citizen” was not the responsible party.

Miss Congeniality opens with a brief flashback of Gracie as a child, defending a boy she likes from a bully. She beats up the bully and scares him off, but her crush ends up insulting her afterwards, as he feels embarrassed at having been defended by a girl. She retaliates by punching him in the face and calling him a wimp. The scene reveals an important insight about Gracie. Beyond just the fact that she is a tomboy, when exchanging verbal jabs with the bully (before the physical ones), she insults him by calling him a girl. This sets the stage for Gracie’s arc of confronting her own internalized misogyny.

As an adult, Gracie works for the FBI, and all of the scenes of her interacting with her coworkers, either at the office or while they do surveillance as she’s undercover, speak to the experience of sexism in the workplace. It’s particularly challenging for Gracie because she is a woman working in a predominantly male work environment. She is made to pick up everyone’s coffee orders on her way into the office. She comes up with the entire concept of sending an agent undercover at the pageant and proposes several other ideas related to the logistics of successfully setting this plan in motion.

As quickly as the ideas spill from her lips, her coworker Eric (Benjamin Bratt) claims them as his own. The timing of this dialogue is such that the exchange is played for comedy. Nonetheless, the social commentary of this material ends up exemplifying the concept of great comedy coming from a place of truth.

Many of the men she works with are shown to have a propensity for objectifying women. A trial-and-error process of digitally rendering pictures of female agents into dresses and swimsuits to determine who should go undercover turns into a full-blown, raucous spectator sport. When she engages in physical sparring in the FBI gym with Eric, he repeatedly touches parts of her body that he has no reason to touch other than the fact that he is a creep. When Gracie goes to pageant events and pageant locations, including dressing rooms, the men she works with are gleeful at the prospect of getting to leer at women through her hidden camera, especially when there is less clothing to cover the women up.

Pageant contestants in Miss Congeniality.

Some may interpret this as period-typical sexism of a film that is now 20+ years old, but such an interpretation would be short-sighted. As Gracie is the hero of the story, the audience feels how frustrating, exasperating, and unwelcome this type of attention is and how frequently women are affected by it. The narrative is constructed to emphasize this issue.

As the film progresses and Gracie begins to get to know the other contestants, she grows especially close with Miss Rhode Island, Cheryl Frasier. Cheryl eventually confides in Gracie about previously being attacked by one of her university professors. Though the film doesn’t use the words “sexual assault” or “rape,” the subtext is quite clear. Gracie assures Cheryl that such an incident isn’t something that should be dismissed and immediately offers to teach her some techniques to defend herself.

Though Cheryl passes out drunk before she can learn any of them, Gracie later gives an impromptu crash course on stage of the Miss United States pageant as a last-minute substitute for her talent in the competition. After all of the unwelcome touching from her coworker Eric and his habit of repeatedly insulting her appearance before she was made over, she punches, flips, and throws him all over the stage. The most memorable part of this is when she simplifies her lessons down to a single acronym of the most sensitive parts of an attacker’s body to hit. The acronym is SING (solar plexus, instep, nose, groin).

Sandra Bullock demonstrates self defense in Miss Congeniality.

When Ronan Farrow published his exposé on Harvey Weinstein in 2017, it was an important part of jump-starting the #MeToo movement. The discourse that stemmed from this movement often focused on the idea that the main focus shouldn’t be for women (or people of any gender) to implement preventative measures to avoid being attacked, but to teach men (or potential attackers of any gender) to not commit these heinous crimes in the first place.

Though Miss Congeniality doesn’t explore that deeper layer of understanding, particularly since the film is a comedy with the general tone leaning towards being more light and fun, it was incredibly insightful for addressing this issue at all, given its release date. Gracie teaching women how to fight during a pageant talent show is about more than teaching people how to be physically violent against an attacker. Gracie has a fighting spirit that can inspire any disenfranchised person or group to fight back against the injustices that systematically harm them. “Fighting back” doesn’t have to mean physical violence against one singular attacker.

What’s particularly fascinating about Gracie’s character arc is how emotionally driven her development is. She is already physically strong and capable of defending herself in that way, even as a child on a playground. However, her rejection from a boy she likes establishes that she is an outsider. She is a tomboy with a propensity for throwing punches and ends up in a largely male work environment, but remains an outsider because of sexism in the workplace. However, she doesn’t relate to the more “traditional” aspects of femininity, either, and bristles when coming into close contact with those who do.

Before entering the pageant, Gracie expresses a belief that playing a pageant character would mean playing an “airhead bimbo” and mocks what she sees as a cliché of pageants: expressing a desire for world peace. She doesn’t know how to use makeup, and she doesn’t own a dress or a brush. When she first enters the pageant scene, she is just as much of an outsider in a sea of women as she is when in her predominantly male work environment. However, her sense of humor and her disregard for the more oppressive social constructs that are often applied to women end up winning over the other contestants.

One of the first sequences that introduces the story’s critiques of those social constructs is the makeover scene. Gracie has to undergo a number of treatments on her teeth, hair, nails, and waxing different parts of her body. She also trips numerous times due to being made to walk in high heels. These details focus on the unrealistic beauty standards placed on women, and how physically painful it can be to try to achieve them. The comedic delivery of Miss Congeniality is light-handed enough that people can simply watch the makeover scene and multiple tripping incidents and enjoy them as wacky hijinks and physical comedy. However, for those that have directly felt that pressure to go through physical pain to fit society’s unrealistic beauty standards, the scene can offer catharsis.

Miss Congeniality also addresses the toxicity of diet culture. As soon as Gracie begins her makeover sequence, she is cut off from being able to eat what she wants when she wants. Her diet becomes restrictive, and Eric mocks her attempts to pretend to enjoy chewing on a piece of raw celery by eating a loaded sandwich and some sort of pastry.

Sandra Bullock drinking in Miss Congeniality.

A major strength of Miss Congeniality is the way it balances addressing so many serious issues while maintaining a sense of humor about the ridiculousness of these unreasonable expectations placed on women to be perfect in their appearance, grooming, and behavior. Sandra Bullock’s fish-out-of-water comedic delivery is the perfect vehicle for poking fun at the status quo without becoming heavy-handed.

When the special agents are trying to figure out the identity of whomever is threatening the pageant, they discover a lead that suggests Cheryl Frasier might be involved. In order to get her to open up more, Gracie decides to bring beer and a pizza to the gym where Cheryl and the other contestants have congregated. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get off their exercise-machines, disregard their rules about food and calories, and dig in. The girls end up all going out to a club together to continue drinking, dancing, and enjoying each other’s company. This is an important breakthrough for Gracie as she strengthens her bonds with these women and begins to find a sense of community and sisterhood she has never experienced before.

The power of this sisterhood is at the heart of why Miss Congeniality remains so beloved. At a surface glance, some might wonder whether a story in which the lead character works as a gun-toting FBI agent who enters a beauty pageant is little more than glittery copaganda. However, Gracie’s employer and coworkers are not portrayed as heroes in the story. When Gracie has determined the identity of the people making those threats of violence against the pageant and its contestants, she is abandoned. The FBI believes they have already caught the guy, refuses to take her theory seriously, packs everything up, and refuses to leave her any support or resources to continue her investigation when she insists on staying.

“I know everyone thinks I’m a screw-up, alright? But for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time, and I have to protect those girls. It is my job.”

Her impassioned speech clearly indicates that she has found a higher sense of purpose from meeting these women. Her job and coworkers have never truly supported or emotionally fulfilled her. Conversely, when Gracie shows up without anyone to help her get ready for the pageant, all of the women she has befriended immediately rush in to help her regardless of the fact that they are meant to be competing against one another. The FBI’s lack of involvement means the judging will no longer be rigged to automatically guarantee a ticket to the Top 5, which makes it all the more compelling when she successfully implements the lessons taught to her by pageant consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine).

Gracie ends up qualifying for the Top 5, but one of her new friends to be eliminated is Miss New York, Karen Krantz, an Afro-Latina contestant who makes a memorable declaration before being forced off stage.

“I just want to let all the lesbians out there know if I can make it to the top 10, so can you!”

There’s a fair bit of commentary in this moment, regardless of how short that part of the scene is. For one, Karen doesn’t reveal that she is a lesbian until after she has already been eliminated, implying that she would have been discriminated against if she had come out before embarking on her competitive run. Gracie is someone who has been shown to feel like an outsider in both the predominantly male or female environments the story puts her into, and she is the only contestant who claps for Karen after she makes her declaration on television.

Karen shouting on stage in Miss Congeniality.

Additionally, when one of the directors in the control room asks whether or not the word “lesbian” can be uttered on television, one of the female employees in the room responds, “You got a problem with that?” Her firm stance against that bigotry is a message that is just as much for the film’s audience as it is for her colleague. When taking into account the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t strike down any and all remaining state bans of same-sex marriage until 2015, Miss Congeniality demonstrated an important, supportive LGBT+ stance in opposition to the legislation of the time.

Gracie ends up placing as the runner-up to Cheryl, and their relationship arc is another highlight of the film. Cheryl is the first contestant to welcome Gracie when she feels particularly out-of-place as a tomboy going undercover in a beauty pageant. Cheryl is a sweet, somewhat naive person, but Gracie is encouraging of her every step of the way. This unwavering encouragement, plus the gift of a pair of flaming batons, helps Cheryl to become more confident in herself and secure the win. It’s a shining example of women uplifting other women that still needs to be shown more in a media landscape where the default setting is often to needlessly pit women against one another.

By the end of the film, it is entirely clear that Gracie has made considerable progress in unlearning the internalized misogyny she has carried for the majority of her life. While doing the Q&A portion of the pageant, she shares how she used to be one of the people that thought pageants and the women who participated in them were outdated and antifeminist. However, upon coming to the pageant, she found that the other contestants were smart, terrific people just trying to make a difference in the world and now regards them as her friends. She also describes the experience as “one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences” of her life.

Though the action of the film’s conclusion (Gracie throwing the fake tiara with the bomb in it just in time before it explodes and destroys a giant set piece) makes for an exciting and dramatic climax, it is not the part that offers the greatest emotional payoff. After the pageant finishes, Gracie is awarded the title of Miss Congeniality by Cheryl and the other contestants. Typically, this type of award would be granted to someone with the most “pleasant” or “agreeable” personality, but in Gracie’s case, she is able to win it for having become good friends with the other women and saving their lives.

Before Gracie meets these women, she is shown to be sad, alone, and professionally overlooked at work. This is the first time she is being truly appreciated for her intelligence and physical capabilities as an agent, and for her personal character. Her happiness doesn’t come from styling herself to be more “traditionally feminine” than she wants to be. It comes from finding people who accept her for her authentic self and simultaneously learning to accept and love herself.

“I’m very honored and moved and truly touched, and I really do want world peace.”

Sandra Bullock speaks into a microphone on pageant stage in Miss Congeniality.

The final line is one that seemed entirely comedic when watching the film on a loop as a child in the 2000s, but upon revisiting it twenty years later, there is so much more weight behind it than it usually gets credit for. When Gracie begins her journey, she is an FBI agent with a lot of rage and emotional pain she hasn’t properly addressed. During an argument, Victor Melling tells her, “In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun.”

She sometimes struggles to effectively communicate with others, and opts for violence as the solution to problems. During an earlier pageant event, the contestants are asked, “What is the one most important thing our society needs?” All of the contestants say world peace, but Gracie’s first response is “harsher punishment for parole violators” before changing her answer to match everyone else’s.

It’s the type of line that could have been a studio mandate, or simply intended to be comedic and further emphasize her place of being an outsider to this world. Whether intentional or not, this line can be interpreted as part of an arc of Gracie shifting away from violence as an institution and the violence within herself.

When Gracie says her final line and declares that she wants world peace, Sandra Bullock performs this moment with a tearful delivery and a raw, emotional honesty. Gracie comes from a hyper-masculine, sexist world that would presumably look down upon earnest emotional expression, but this moment is one that should be celebrated.

Miss Congeniality is a film full of love and encouragement to be true to yourself, to uplift the people around you, and to not be bogged down by archaic social norms that promote finding self-worth from the superficial. Sandra Bullock brought to life an important story with the range to make the audience laugh, learn how to SING, and promote the philosophy of living our lives cherishing how each and every one of us is one in a million.

(images: Warner Bros.)

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Jenevia (AKA 'LadyJenevia') is a Japanese video essayist and host who as a kid had every piece of Legolas merch she could find. She is still waiting for Lucy Liu, Drew, and Cameron D to complete the Charlie's Angels trilogy. Other current favourites of hers include Zack Snyder and Guy Ritchie films, Amélie, Miyazaki, musicals, and uplifting creative authenticity over 'movies made by a committee.'