There was no way Miss Utah was going to fade into obscurity after unleashing that incoherent stream of consciousness upon the world on Sunday night at the Miss USA pageant. But in a series of interviews in the wake of her "create education better" gaffe, 21-year-old Marissa Powell's self-effacing sense of humor — and actually pretty intelligent thoughts on the gender pay gap — have brought her back from under-the-spotlight mess to perhaps exactly what the pageant industry needs: a redemption story, a conversation about beauty and brains, and a re-thinking of just how hard it is to answer tough questions under the spotlight.
Powell was subject to all the ridicule one would expect after the pageant Q&A bumbles that preceded her — Caitlin "The Iraq" Upton, Carrie "opposite marriage" Prejean, and all the rest. It's a pretty easy thing to laugh at. To recap, Powell, asked a tough question about bread-winning moms, responded:
I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are … continuing to try to strive to ... figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are … um … seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create education better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.
Now that made absolutely no sense. Still doesn't. Still makes you cringe. But after all the pointing and laughing of the days that followed, there was also a discussion of whether pointing and laughing is actually a pretty bad thing when it comes to beauty pageants. Sure, "The Iraq" is an easy way to mock that these primetime contests care about looks and make a mockery of brains themselves. But: "On the other hand, cackling at bimbos is not exactly progressive either," wrote Slate's Amanda Marcotte. "Hard to say which urge any random person is expressing when they pass along these videos." Gaby Dunn at the Daily Dot thinks the piling-on has deeper roots, in making sure that a woman can't be both pretty and smart: "We cannot abide by a woman being both beautiful and intelligent, and in our insecurity and jealousy, we are given something to mock," Dunn wrote. "We love it when beautiful women mess up because it throws down the perfectly crafted curtain and reveals that behind veneers and make-up, they are flawed." And they're not exactly wrong. Can you name the winner of a Miss USA pageant without Googling it?
But Miss Utah is coming out from behind the curtain. In the last two days, Powell has been booked on a myriad of talk shows, perhaps in hope that she'll say something dumb again, but also because she is, without a doubt, the most memorable impression America has from the Miss USA pageant — of beauty and stupidity. Except on Jimmy Kimmel's show last night, Powell came off as bright, conversational, and not at all afraid to poke fun at herself or her brain fart:
On Today, Matt Lauer asked Powell an even more nuanced version of that gender pay-gap question that stumped her, and after two nights to think about it, she had an answer, even amidst the ridicule: "So this is not OK. It needs to be equal pay for equal work, and it's hard enough already to earn a living, and it shouldn't be harder just because you're a woman," Powell said on Tuesday morning, garnering applause from the Today staffers on set. She sounded almost like the politician, which is ostensible what crowned winners are supposed to say, not the pageant idiot.
So, was the pay-gap question too "hard" for a pageant to begin with? The question, asked by
renowned gender pay gap expert Real Housewife of Atlanta Nene Leakes, was:
A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?
That isn't easy. "Not to put too fine a point on it, what kind of a simultaneously (1) dumb and (2) impossible to answer question is that? First of all, it's three questions rolled into one," writes NPR's Linda Holmes, adding:
"What does this say about society?" Asked by NeNe Leakes? While you're standing next to Giuliana Rancic, whose other job involves making people walk their fingernails down a tiny, hand-sized red carpet? What would have been a good answer to this question that could have been delivered in the time frame she had?
I think about this kind of stuff a lot. I've studied it. I've had about 20 years longer than Miss Utah USA to think about it. I have no idea what I would have said if someone had asked me such a moronic question on live television.
Holmes is brutal, but completely honest — that question was tough. And it's easy to see why anyone would be flustered, on camera, on stage, on primetime, trying to sort out gender equality, education, and the state of the economy, without preparation, and on the clock. Maybe the deck was stacked against Miss Utah, or whatever unfortunate human drew that kind of pressure.
Powell, it seems, has been and will continue to recover from her Miss USA debacle splendidly. And hopefully she can teach us a thing or two on the way.