Miss dumb blond USA?

Our national embarrassment over a South Carolina teenage contestant's world knowledge.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

There has been some discussion here at Salon about the Miss Teen South Carolina video that has probably zinged in and out of your in box several times already this week. The video is excruciating in its ubiquity; if you go to Technorati.com, images of glossy-lipped teen Lauren Caitlin Upton fill all three of the most-linked-to-video slots. At Salon, we can’t seem to decide whether this perpetrator of spectacular public embarrassment deserves to be mocked or defended.

In case you’ve been comatose or on dial-up, or just prefer to take the high road when it comes to viral videos, this tempest began brewing at the Aug. 24 Miss Teen USA pageant, when 18-year-old Upton, Miss Teen South Carolina, was asked the following question: “Recent polls have shown that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?”

Her answer, regrettably verbatim: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps. And I believe that our education, like, such as in South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere, like such as, and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for our children.”

Gack.

Upton gamely appeared on the “Today” show on Tuesday morning, where she received sympathetic treatment; a leeringly empathetic Matt Lauer even claimed that some of his on-air gaffes over the years have been as bad as hers. Upton said that she hadn’t heard the original question, and the “Today” hosts offered her a chance to answer again. Having presumably had more than three days to chew on it and rehearse a response, Upton said, “Well, personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on our map. I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t. And if the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography.”

This blip of a story, magnified by an Internet that delivers hilarity at the expense of others to your desk in seconds (especially gratifying in a week when you’ve grown tired of reading about the resignation of the attorney general or how New Orleans has been left to rot), is shameful for a variety of reasons.



It is frankly just embarrassing how eagerly, joyfully, jeeringly we’ve embraced Upton as pure point-and-snarf spectacle. She falls into a particularly dirty sweet spot for Americans: young, pretty, blond, Southern and female. That she appears to also be sort of dumb completes our idealized vision of laughable femininity, and the popularity of the clip shows that her embodiment of our national punch line is going over like gangbusters. The giddy thrill over Miss South Carolina recalls a similar outbreak of hilarity earlier this summer over the horribly botched train wreck interview of Holly Hunter conducted by young, blond, female entertainment news anchor Merry Miller. “Look at the stupid chick! Whee! Yuk-yuk!”

The collective guffawing at Upton is just plain mean, say several Salon staffers. What was up with that geography question, anyway? What was she supposed to answer, and why should it matter? Upton, after all, was competing to be Miss Teen USA, not president. It’s not fair to judge her so harshly on one bungled response — especially considering that actual presidential candidates who have given equally idiotic answers in debates have gone on to be elected.

What’s more, Upton’s claim that she did not hear the question in her nervousness rings true enough. Who among us hasn’t frozen up a bit when speaking in front of the class, let alone in front of a national audience? Sure, if she was flummoxed she should have asked the host to repeat the question, but come on, she’s just a kid.

On the other hand … Upton may be just a kid, but she is clearly a terribly ignorant one. There is no getting around the fact that her answer was, if not flat-out stupid, desperately misinformed. Isn’t it possible that defending her against the chuckling meanies, claiming that she is being treated unfairly, plays to our current national obsession with telling young people that everything they do is just peachy, that there are no wrong answers, that they’re special just the way they are and shouldn’t be judged for being themselves?

Maybe we’re not laughing because she’s a pretty girl; maybe we’re laughing because she chose to go on national television, where she wanted to win a contest that included a question-and-answer session, and then made a total ass of herself in that question-and-answer session. And while we’re on the subject of the pageant, why are we snorting at a stupid answer when we don’t bat an eye at the fact that Upton and her pageant sisters are smearing Vaseline on their teeth and parading around in bathing suits and evening gowns, hoping to be judged superior to one another and deemed emblematic of young American womanhood? Where, exactly, does Upton’s (and our own) humiliation begin? Perhaps not with a geography question.

Whether she is worthy of our contempt or sympathy, it should be noted that Lauren Caitlin Upton’s execrable performance in the pageant did not ruin her. Not only did she get to appear on the “Today” show, but she was actually named third runner-up to Miss Teen USA, Hilary Carol Cruz from Colorado. According to the Miss Teen USA Web site, the contest “awards points based equally on personal interview, style (evening gown) and fitness (swimsuit). Additionally, consideration is placed on self-confidence, poise, public speaking skills, knowledge of current events and personality.” Third runner-up. That’s out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia, folks. Upton was deemed to be among the top 10 percent of her peers.

So here’s an answer for you, judges: Perhaps one reason that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a map is that to be recognized and applauded as the best youth the United States has to offer, one needn’t know that the name of the country in which we’re at war does not take a definite article.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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