I’VE NEVER given a second thought to the Miss USA pageant. I casually dismissed it as just another awards show that used to be relevant and now no longer is (The Grammys, The Golden Globes, MTV Music Awards, etc.) And I still don't care. I've never watched it before, and I won't start next year.
But this year, as you all know by now, there was controversy. Miss California came in second place, and the general consensus is because she gave a highly unpopular answer to gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton’s question about the Gay Marriage Issue.
There are two easy angles to take on this story, depending on your point of view.
From the right wing, you could decry the backlash directed at Miss California as a new form of prejudice, throwing out catch-phrases like "the gay agenda" and "liberal media". Let’s face it, Perez Hilton is an easy target for anyone looking to land a cheap shot. He set her up, asked a loaded question, and then acted like a petulant child when he didn't get the answer he wanted. You could go on about the dying moral fiber of the country, the paradox of accepted-intolerance-but-only-of-intolerance and how we're probably going to have “another New Orleans” if this sort of thing keeps up.
Alternately, if you’re on the left wing, you could vilify Carrie Prejean as a last dying bastion of a hateful past. You could equate homophobia today to racism in the 60's, and rant for hours about the narrow-mindedness of the bigoted white Christian America. You could say that a personal answer to a question about politics was highly inappropriate, and if you thought about it for long enough, you could probably work in a George W. Bush reference for good measure, and talk about how hatemongering is still such an epidemic in this country.
But I don't think I'm here to write from either of those perspectives. I think this happened exactly like it was supposed to. I’m tempted to stop here and give some sort of qualifying statement about my faith or my political standpoint, but this isn't about me. And it's not about you, and frankly, it's not about Perez Hilton. It's not even about gay marriage.
This is about heroism.
I know. Bear with me.
America’s fascination with the hero is weird. We invented the Superhero, and we've never looked back. But we are highly conditional on a hero-to-hero basis. We love Superman, but only because he's secretly a controllable, vanilla, opinion-less, safe Clark Kent. If he were Tommy Lee in his spare time, the story (though highly entertaining, come on) would be different. Even the womanizing, "dark" Bruce Wayne is acceptable because it's all a ruse, a cover for the greater good of concealing the identity of a crime-fighting Batman.
I think America doesn't really love heroes so much as they love the idea of a hero. The Symbol. It's like some bizarre reverse translation of the old "love the sinner, hate the sin." We tend to worship the heroic action in the face of staggering odds, all the while waiting with baited breath for the downfall of the person behind those actions. Michael Phelps was our darling while he was embarrassing the rest of the swimming world, but the backlash after his bong photos was immediate and absurd. Chesley Sullenberger, Richard Phillips, take note: You’re on thin ice.
I looked up heroism, and (no lie) the first definition was "Having the qualities of a hero." (Thanks.) The second started off the same self-referential way ("Heroic conduct…"), but it finished strong: "…especially as exhibited in fulfilling a high purpose or attaining a noble end." At the risk of getting philosophical: What purpose is considered "high," and what end, "noble"?
I guess that depends on your perspective. Jihadists would have an entirely different definition than my mother. Environmentalists and Construction workers would probably give entirely different answers. And I'm going limb-climbing and guessing that Perez Hilton and Carrie Prejean also have different definitions of "high and noble."
But in each of these disagreements, one side’s view is more widely acceptable. In the case of Hilton vs. The Miss of California, Perez’ version is definitely the more popular one in the media, and maybe in all Americans under 40.
So the easy answer (regardless of whether you or I or anyone involved think that it was the right or wrong answer) would have been something as benign and harmless as "I believe in love, and I believe that is the greatest part of being an American; the freedom that we have been given as a result of our forefathers. Freedom to live and love in a way that we see fit." That would have technically skirted the issue with a very diplomatic but positive-sounding response. Plus, it’s vague enough that both sides would think she was one of their own. It would have been a complete non-answer, exactly the kind most pageant contestants are expected to give. And she probably would have won the crown that she worked so long for.
But whoa. What's this? This otherwise harmless-looking and attractive blonde instead looks into the eyes of a man who's asking a very loaded question, and decides that she can't live with herself if she doesn't give the answer she knows will enrage him and end up costing her dearly? Who does Miss California think she is? Cassie Bernall?
It did cost her. It should have. Her position was offensive to the judge, and she knew it before it left her mouth. She essentially made the decision "Which of these is the more high and noble calling?" She made her choice, she unapologetically stood by it and watched while it cost her exactly what she knew it would.
Just like Cassie Bernall. Just like Martin Luther King. Just like Harvey Milk.
See, heroism isn't about being perfect. It's not about being popular. It isn't even about being right. I believe that heroism is, in its most basic form simply this: showing courage, especially when you know there's no chance of personal gain. I'm not saying Christians need to adopt a victim mentality, accepting with no indignation the idea of "well, the Bible said we'd be hated, I guess we'll always lose every argument, but it's cool, we'll all be right in Heaven." Nor am I saying that we need to rally the troops, make a movie (please do not make a movie.), and raise hell over a beauty pageant.
I'm just saying that something inside of me stands and takes notice when someone believes so strongly about something that they are willing to reject the easy answers, or even the self-preserving answers. I wonder what the world would be like if we all considered our answers and then courageously stated them without regard for our popularity. I can't help but think the world would be a much more honest—and much messier—place.
So count me as one who thought her answer, for better or worse, was courageous. Agree with her definition of marriage. Or don't. That really isn't the point.
Correction, May 1: This article originally referred to the pageant in question as the "Miss America" pageant. It was the Miss USA contest.
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