Sandra Bullock, Gracie Lou Freebush, And Miss Congeniality’s Feminist Journey

The iconic film landed in UK cinemas twenty years ago today.

Miss Congeniality

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

Twenty years ago today, a film icon arrived on British soil. Gracie Hart - aka Gracie Lou Freebush - arrived in our lives when Miss Congeniality landed in UK cinemas on March 23rd, 2001. On the surface, the film was merely the latest instalment in the light comedic fare that we had come to associate with Sandra Bullock and her fellow Hollywood princesses - Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan et al - and yet two decades on, it is clear that there was something truly special about this beauty pageant caper. Behind the makeover montages and swimsuit rounds, Gracie Hart was a role model for all of us, and a vital reminder of the way women continue to be misjudged.

If it's been a while since you've seen it - I refuse to accept that there are people in the world who have not done so - then I offer a quick reminder. Gracie Hart is an agent for the FBI. She has a moral compass and strong sense of justice, but has no concern for her appearance in the male-dominated office: she is treated very much as one of the boys. Nevertheless, when a misdemeanour involving a very purple Russian puts one of her colleagues in danger, she is relegated to desk work. Her chance to shine comes via an unlikely case: a terrorist claiming to be The Citizen - already responsible for several attacks - threatens the Miss United States Pageant. The only way for Gracie to truly be everywhere, to keep eyes on all suspects and protect the young women competing, is to go undercover. Her colleagues mock her mercilessly at the very thought, as if Sandra's undeniable beauty could ever really be masked by a frizzy hairdo, but they move forward. Gracie, with the help of actual Sir Michael Caine, is transformed into Miss New Jersey, Gracie Lou Freebush. And so begins one of the most uplifting feminist journeys in the madcap makeover sub-genre.

The strength of Miss Congeniality, and Gracie herself, is that viewed from a more contemporary lens she has a lot to learn. She is seen to mock beautiful women on several occasions. When her colleague Eric brings an attractive young woman to the bar, she ridicules her, assuming that she is unintelligent simply because she clearly owns a brush and orders a white wine spritzer. When she is given her new cover name, she riffs 'My IQ just dropped ten points'. Seeking an access point to the pageant, she and her fellow agents destroy the chances of the current Miss New Jersey, all because she participated in pornographic film called Arma-get-it-on (cue William Shatner: 'That was her?!).

It continues. On her way to Texas, she watches videos of previous winners for research purposes. 'If I only had a brain', she mocks, laughing at the possibility that winning a pageant could be a point of such pride that they could cause tears. From the get-go, she assumes that the 49 other women in her presence are dumb, vacuous attention-seekers, and treats the assignment as an embarrassment.

Miss Congeniality

But then, the transformation begins. There is a physical one, of course. It is a Hollywood film, after all. She has her hair washed, moussed and straightened, her eyebrows are tweezed, her teeth whitened. She is poured into a bodycon dress and cajoled into high heel shoes. But on arrival at the Miss United States hub she begins to actually speak to these women, and realise that - heaven forbid - their good looks are mere accompaniments to their personalities, their passions and foibles.

This is particularly clear in the case of Cheryl, aka Miss Rhode Island, who identifies her by her lack of picture in the contestant catalogue and immediately offers her the hand of friendship. She makes her (horrible) hot chocolate, and tells Gracie that her quick thinking and humour means she is definitely going to win. In this cutthroat competition, Cheryl has found a stranger and offered her kindness and support. Gracie responds by - accidentally - mocking her baton-twirling. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that this young woman's perky exterior masks real pain. She discusses her upbringing - a mother who raised her to be ashamed of anything ostentatious - we see via her files that she has fought to have her voice heard at protests and, perhaps most importantly, she reveals that she was assaulted by her professor while a university student. Cheryl is the greatest learning tool in Gracie's arsenal: this amiable person may be a little ditsy - her answer of 'April 25th' to the 'idea of a perfect date' question is, rightly, in Twitter's comedy hall of fame - but her core features are kindness, compassion and integrity.

That said, to some extent her virtues are a moot point. Mary Jo, aka Miss Texas, fulfils the inevitable archetype of the pageant Mean Girl. Her crimes against womanhood aren't too harsh: she tells the other girls of Gracie's late night visit from Eric, she is vaguely dismissive and ambitious, and is visibly disappointed to come third. She is nevertheless framed as the bitch. But it shouldn't matter that she's not nice. She doesn't deserve to be treated as stupid or lacking substance from the get-go. Everyone deserves a base level of respect. It is not unimportant that Gracie includes her in the girls' night out, nor that she is spotted smiling and supportive in the final scene.

After the culprit has been caught, after the love interest has been clinched - again, it is Hollywood - Gracie's final moment in the film is a scene of vulnerability, where she is acknowledged as the pageant's Miss Congeniality and gives a brief speech, in which she expresses her new love and respect for this disparate sisterhood, accepting the power of female solidarity and, with 'I really do want world peace', coming to understand that every woman in that room - from Alabama to Wyoming - all came to Texas on a journey to make the world a better place. Their methods were just different. The fact that she cries at being given a title at a beauty pageant - after that scene on the plane - shows that her emotional journey is complete.

Twenty years ago, Gracie Hart became Gracie Lou Freebush. She's not the perfect feminist. Is there such a thing? But in fewer than two hours of screen time she came to understand something crucial about the way she views the world: she has done to these women what the men of the FBI have done to her, making assumptions from a mere glance. And she's even able to use that to her advantage: her beauty queen persona means that her improvised talent - beating Eric to a pulp live on stage - is all the more impactful. So, having realised this solidarity, she can move on with beauty and grace.

Still, the original Miss New Jersey still deserves an apology.

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