Towards the end of Jeffrey Blitz’s independent 2002 documentary Spellbound, Alex Cameron, longtime pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, describes a quintessentially American belief in the power of work, repeating the familiar idea that with enough effort and desire, anyone can achieve anything in the United States. What he does not discuss explicitly, however, is the logical extension of this idea, that it is not enough to work hard, you must work harder—or smarter, or faster, or more cunningly—than those around you to succeed. What is hard work worth if you are not in some way better than the millions of other people who want the exact same thing as you? In a capitalist society, competition is just as crucial to success as effort, and as such, ideas of fighting, striving, and winning are part and parcel of the American Dream, regardless of how much they may appear to contradict such a noble ideal.
Few phenomena are as competitive or more American than the pageant, subject of The Bad News Bears director Michael Ritchie’s lesser-known 1975 film Smile, a United Artists release. This loose, energetic satire chronicles the unexpectedly wide-reaching effects of a California Young American Miss contest taking place in Santa Rosa, from the cynical, disturbingly ambitious teenage participants, to the well-meaning but short-sighted local judges, to other citizens just trying to get on with their lives in the face of vaguely defined failure in stifling suburbia.
While the first American Beauty Pageant, held by P. T. Barnum in 1854, was a mere measure of physical attractiveness, as women’s role in society shifted over the decades as a result of greater legal rights and access to education, so did pageant culture try to embrace assessments of inner beauty (with such now-familiar tests as the question and talent portions of the competition). Smile captures a strange historical moment, sort of the seed of the impossible “having it all” ideal, in which women were expected to be both feminine and feminist, able to prove their independence and intellectual worth, but not in a way that threatened traditional roles and values. Ritchie presents pageant logic as being full of such uncomfortable paradoxes. Read Farihah Zaman’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.