There’s a pervasive attitude that women must adopt masculine traits to succeed in the world. While it’s positive for women to be confident and intelligent, the idea of “girl power” has been twisted to mean that being feminine is wrong. Upon re-watching “Miss Congeniality,” I saw this topic was covered gracefully and humorously 20 years ago. It made me laugh while also mirroring my own journey.
Gracie Hart (played by Sandra Bullock) is anything but graceful. She grew up reading Nancy Drew and fighting bullies, but has come to believe that feminine qualities are negative. When fighting a bully as a child, she calls him a girl – only in retaliation for him calling her one. Instead of embracing who she is, she does everything she can to avoid being feminine and lashes out in anger at any suggestion she do otherwise.
When we meet adult Gracie, she is an FBI agent who’s trying her best but keeps messing up. She is completely off-balance: She is rageful, feels she can’t trust her instincts, and doesn’t take care of herself. Gracie feels the need to adopt masculine traits to be taken seriously. In her mind, this means she must push away anything feminine to prove she is strong. One of the ways she does this is through her appearance. Almost as an act of rebellion, Gracie wants everyone to know she doesn’t care what she looks like. Her clothes don’t fit, her hair is unkempt, and there are stains all over her shirt. When she meets her coworker Eric’s (Benjamin Bratt) date at the bar, she is condescending towards her because she is more feminine.
Gracie’s Mission and Makeover
After being benched for jeopardizing a mission, Gracie gets a shot at redemption. When an elusive criminal threatens the Miss United States Pageant, the FBI decides they need someone to go undercover. Eric chooses Gracie. At first, she refuses and gripes to him, “It’s like feminism never even happened. I think any women who do this are catering to some misogynistic Neanderthal mentality.”
After feeling challenged by a top-notch beauty pageant coach, Victor (Michael Caine), Gracie undergoes extensive lessons and treatments to become a believable Miss United States contestant (giving us one of the most iconic makeover scenes of all time!)
Meeting Her Opposite
Gracie – now going by Gracie Lou Freebush – automatically feels uncomfortable being surrounded by the pageant contestants. They’re the types of girls she always looked down on and chose not to be around.
When Gracie meets Cheryl (Heather Burns), she’s the complete opposite of Gracie. She’s open, warm, and looks like a beauty queen from the 1950s. She’s classically feminine, which leads her to enthusiastically include Gracie. At first, Cheryl appears to be a typical pageant girl to Gracie. Once Gracie gets to know her, however, she sees that Cheryl has self-doubt and struggles, just like she does. This leads the two to eventually become very good friends and learn from one another.
Despite finding the whole thing ridiculous, Gracie throws herself into the mission and gets to know the women around her. Just like Cheryl, she sees that there is more to these women than she first thought. Each has a distinct personality with her own talents and goals. Gracie begins to see that competing in the pageant requires tremendous confidence and acceptance of your unique traits and talents. When she begins to accept her femininity, she becomes more balanced and confident.
After the FBI tells her to go home because the criminal threatening the pageant has been caught, Gracie instead puts her job on the line to follow her instincts. Believing that the real culprit hasn’t been caught yet, she says, “For the first time in my life, I feel like I am in the right place at the right time. And I have to protect those girls.” After getting some more information from Victor, Eric decides to stay back and help. Gracie ends up discovering the real culprit is the soon-to-be-fired head of the Miss United States Pageant, who secretly put a bomb in the crown.
Gracie saves the day, gets the guy (we love to see it), and is named Miss Congeniality by Cheryl. Gracie tearfully accepts the award (showing emotion for the first time) and fulfills her earlier statement, “This experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.”
In the end, Gracie didn’t have to change who she was. While she did learn to present herself better, she kept her goofy attitude, intelligence, and love of sparring. She simply leaned into her feminine instincts and trusted what was already there, instead of running from it.
Gracie Is the Modern Woman
After rediscovering this movie, I laughed at how much I saw myself in Gracie. For a movie that came out 20 years ago (and still has so much great outfit inspiration, by the way), it’s amazing how we seem to be having the same internal conflicts now.
I grew up being told to be as smart and as strong as possible. Unfortunately, I always interpreted this as being louder and tougher. I often saw myself in opposition to women who cared about how they looked and were generally more feminine. I couldn’t understand it and often thought that was something I could never do. I didn’t realize that dressing well was a form of self-care that can make you feel more confident. I also came to see the beauty in more feminine traits. I learned that being feminine is in no way weak, but is instead a powerful source of elegance that has the capacity to heal ourselves and those around us. As I watched Miss Congeniality, I laughed knowingly at Gracie fighting her natural instincts, and empathized with the relief and liberation she felt when she finally came to respect her femininity.
Despite the world often telling us the contrary, there is nothing wrong with being feminine. It’s okay to be nurturing, to care about how you look, and to lean into your intuition. You can be intelligent, successful, and strong all while being feminine. Just like Gracie, you don’t have to lose yourself in the process. Instead, you find the right balance of feeling comfortable in your skin.
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