Do you know what I love more than almost anything else on this planet? Knowing obscure information that the people around me don’t know. I know, I know. It’s completely inane. It’s like I perpetually want to be that guy at the party who keeps people entertained.
(Okay, to be fair, that’s exactly what I want to be. I miss parties. I miss entertaining. I miss knowing things that the people around me don’t know because my wife is brilliant and knows everything before I have the chance to know it.)
I once wrote a book called 1000 Paper Cranes (you can read it over at Wattpad, typos and all). The protagonist, Jordan, memorized tons and tons and tons of facts so that he could make conversation with people. Jordan is a gross exaggeration of myself. I’m not quite as socially awkward as Jordan (I’m also not a smart driven, but that’s beside the point), but I do love to know things that make people stop and say “hmmm.”
And I feel like my most recent read has contributed greatly to my ability to make people stop, scratch their chins, and say “hmmmm” as they consider the things I just told them. This weekend, I had the pleasure of reading Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of all my interests, I’m not sure the intersection of all of them would wind up at this book, but somehow, this book rung so many of my bells that it even surprised me. My wife did pageants in college, particularly she wanted to win our university’s pageant which would have made her an important voice for the student body; she would have had a vote at all big meetings concerning our school. The first time she performed in the pageant, we were only just beginning to be close friends and I couldn’t figure out why a woman as smart as she would want to be in pageants. She taught me a lot about pageants then, and that it actually took intelligence, as well as grace, to become involved in the pageant scene.
Once I began dating her, we spent a lot of time watching Toddlers & Tiaras and the drama and disaster of it all drew me in. Whereas a friend of mine was happy to confess that he was going to put his daughter in pageants young, it only served to teach me that my daughters would definitely never do pageants until they asked, and even then they’d have to wait. That’s too much pressure and vicarious-living packed into one makeup-and-hair-spray-filled room for my taste.
Fast-forward a few years and I began teaching in Louisiana. I met and became very close with my friend Jennifer who had been Mrs. Louisiana. Again, my perception of what pageant life meant was altered again. I got to work daily with a woman who often used her pageant training to smile through difficult days and to present her best face when having to speak about difficult topics. She has told me on more than one occasion that her pageant training comes in handy so often at work because of interview skills and her ability to smile through anything.
All that to say, leading up to me getting my hands on this book, I had many preconceived notions about pageants and the types of women who did them. Luckily, these notions were mainly positive, but not always. Especially not with the way Toddlers & Tiaras and other trainwreck TV shows portrayed pageants and people who participated in pageants.
Here She Is shattered every single one of those preconceived notions, even the positive ones I had from my experiences with my wife and Jennifer. From the very beginning, this book worked to reshape the basic understanding of the American Beauty Pageant.
Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a sociologist, and a professor in the Department of Education at Brown University. If her teaching is anything like her writing, I’d love to take a class or two from her. She is knowledgeable, well-researched, and writes with an interesting voice. She made me want to keep reading and learning and understanding the pageants and what her research has revealed.
Dr. Friedman has a unique perspective on pageants, being the daughter of Miss America 1970. She brings not only a sociologist’s perspective to the history and development of pageants as we know them but the perspective of somebody close to–on the fringes of–something that is bigger than anybody can see at first glance.
In just the first few pages of Here She Is, I felt like I had learned so much. I was ready to go to my first post-Covid party and wow the crowd with my factoids. (Did you know that the sashes of beauty pageants were modeled after the sashes the suffragettes wore?) Tracking the progression pageants through today, with important conversations surrounding the #MeToo movement, Friedman doesn’t shy away from hard topics. She doesn’t sugarcoat or gloss over the negative parts of the truth surrounding pageants, and that’s so important. Friedman doesn’t approach this as a pageant protestor or supporter, but merely as a third-party observer, with an important female perspective.
So, here’s the deal. If you’ve watched Miss Congeniality more than thrice–on purpose–this book is probably for you. If you’ve had strong feelings about the talent winner of any pageant ever, this book is for you. If you were upset that Kim of Queens was canceled and you didn’t get any closure on Kim Gravel and her students (looking at you, Lifetime), then this is the book for you.
But on a broader spectrum, if you love history, sociology, and women’s rights, this book is for you. It’s well-written, well-researched, and speaks to important topics surrounding the pageant community. Give it a read, learn something new, and continue to learn after that. You’ll thank me for it.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
The Plucky Reader