Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Miss USA really a geek?

To say that I generally pay little attention to beauty pageants (or whatever the PC term is now) is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. Even when I was young and single, they held little appeal; as I grow older, whatever passing interest I may once have had has waned, and the entire process seems somewhere between anachronistic and depressing.

Still, that’s what I’m going to write about today. It seems that this year’s Miss USA winner, a Californian named Alyssa Campanella, is a self-described “huge science geek” and, indeed, “huge history geek.” Why that should be of particular interest to anyone, I’m not sure, but it’s generated headlines in two ways.

First, there are those who—strangely—assert that because Ms. Campanella is in fact a gorgeous young woman that she is something of a poser in her aspirations to geekdom. One tweet reads “Much as I hate to say it, when a Miss USA calls herself a geek, my first thought is “bandwagon hopper.” Another mental giant opines, “anybody that can walk in a bar and get free drinks all night shouldn't constitute as a 'geek'. 'less they're doing ppl's hmwrk.”

It strikes me that there’s more at stake here than a semantic quibble over the definition of “geek.” Rather, this scenario speaks to a distressing and rather pathetic conflation of intellect and physical unattractiveness. My first thought on reading these responses was that I’ve had more than a few geeky women in my classes and on my production teams over the years. A fair number of them have been quite attractive; a handful, stunning. Indeed, it may say something about my taste that I find a higher per capita percentage of really (physically) beautiful women among the geeks than among the pedestrian thinkers (not to say “bimbos”). Geekitude is a function of interests, aptitude, and intellect, not the inability to “get free drinks all night.”

That takes us to the second set of headlines about this year’s pageant. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today reports that, in response to a question about whether evolution ought to be taught in schools, only Ms. Campanella and Alida D’Angona of Massachusetts “stood up for Darwin.” That observation was subsequently picked up by Tanya Somanader of Think Progress and subsequently by Philip Yam at Scientific American.

On the one hand, that’s a chilling statistic, especially since the question wasn’t whether evolution should be taught to the exclusion of other theories, but, in effect, whether it should be taught at all. And that question appears to have generated more “nays” than “ayes,” along with a boatload of equivocations. Were I of a snarky temperament, I might note that a few of these young women don’t believe in evolution because it apparently hasn’t happened to them.

Given the fact that the contestants knew what questions were going to be coming at them, the illogical ramblings of some are truly troubling. This is the stuff stereotypes are built on: “scientists have their different theories. I don’t believe it’s a good topic for school subjects. At all.” That’s Miss Kentucky, Kia Ben-et Hampton, for those of you keeping score at home. Alabama’s Madeline Mitchell at least has the honesty to say that her opposition is grounded in her own belief system: “I do not believe in evolution, I do not believe it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it.”

The correct response to the question, of course, is as follows: “Certainly evolution should be taught in schools. It is the most widely accepted theory among actual scientists by a huge margin, as even those who question its merits will admit… or at least the honest ones will. Understanding evolutionary theory is both an excellent case study for the way scientific method operates and foundational for any kind of sophisticated understanding of comparative zoology or botany. Now, do you have any intelligent questions?” I doubt that answer would make me Miss USA, but somehow I suspect I might not have been that strong a contender to begin with.

For all the flippancy of the above paragraph, however, I’m making a serious point here. The standard theory of the origin of tragedy is that it developed out of dithyramb—a different kind of celebration of the demigod Dionysus—and gradually evolved into the medium associated with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This argument was articulated by Aristotle in his Poetics and echoed by the Cambridge anthropologists of the early 20th century. I think it’s wrong. But it’s still the prevailing theory, and you can bet your bottom dollar I tell my students about it.

I think something else is important here, however. The first is that many contestants’ responses were equivocal in part because contest organizers apparently made it known that: “Polarizing questions often create a situation where you suffer ... if you agree, and if you do not. The girls need to answer in a way that brings them to a common ground.” So I’m not all that concerned with, say, West Virginia’s Whitney Veach, who said,
Yeah, I do think that evolution should be taught in schools, but I also don’t think that religion should be taken out. If you don’t believe in evolution, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. If you don’t believe in religion, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. So I personally feel like they should incorporate both.
This is a perfectly reasonable response, especially in the context of “common ground.” Notice that Ms. Veach says only that religion belongs in the curriculum. It does. In religion class. And there’s nothing in her response to suggest that she is anything but cognizant of the difference between science and religion. The Bible isn’t relevant to the study of biology; the laws of physics don’t apply to Moses’s ability to part the Red Sea.

Indeed, if I might be so bold, this is a far more thoughtful, well-reasoned response than that of the “science geek” everyone is getting so excited about: “Well, I was taught evolution in my high school growing up, and I do believe in it. I mean, I’m a huge science geek, so I like to believe in… the Big Bang theory and the evolution of humans… throughout time.” This answer suggests a frankly superficial understanding of evolution: “the evolution of humans over time” sounds rather too much like the kind of response I get on theatre history tests from students who didn’t study. And what, pray tell, does the Big Bang theory have to do with anything? More to the point, what is “I like to believe in…” all about? This makes scientific knowledge sound like something that has a nice beat and you can dance to. Finally, her response is as parochial in its own way as Ms. Mitchell’s: evolution shouldn’t be taught because Ms. Campanella believes in it any more than it should be excluded because Ms. Mitchell doesn’t.

In short, I’m going to have to reconsider Ms. Campanella’s geekly qualifications. She still gets a different kind of geek cred for her fangirl status vis-à-vis “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones,” but her response to the evolution question isn’t the “cogent answer” Mr. Yam pretends it is. Indeed, it was more suited to the traditional image of the beauty queen than to any legitimate “science geek.” She’s no intellectual—or at least she didn’t prove herself to be one. It’s just that the competition is so inane she looks good by comparison. And she looks good in other ways, too…


Anonymous said...

Yes, the competition to this woman was inane. Yet there is a bigger point that you glossed over. Many young people are still peer-pressured into thinking that geekdom - really, just the application of one's aptitudes - is uncool in middle and high schools. The talents of hundreds of thousands are never discovered. If this woman pushes a few thousand girls (and the boys who want to be with those girls) into a few science and history classes, she will have earned her beauty title and then some.

Jessica Marie said...

Did you hear about her response to her question on the live show? "Medical marijuana is very important to those who need it medically." Genius. Or perhaps you prefer Miss Alabama's response to her question: "Me being a future educator, and whatnot..." The future is bright for public education!