“What is beauty?” is a question that has been hotly debated for centuries. It is a word that means different things to different people. It is the same as “what makes something feminist?” Beauty pageants have a pretty bad reputation amongst feminist circles. While the contestants do have to perform a talent, they are ultimately supposed to look good in a swimsuit. They are judged for their beauty above all else. Beauty pageants have gotten a lot of coverage in the media. There’s just something about them that still interests people. That’s been true in the past, now, and even in Futurama. Season 2 episode 11, The Lesser of Two Evils, features the Miss Universe pageant. Unlike the current Miss Universe pageant, the “women” competing are actually from other planets. Even tough and cool Leela gets swept up in the frenzy and is accidentally crowned before the crown is cruelly taken away from her. The actual Winner of the Miss Universe pageant in the year 3001 is Miss Vega 4, Gladys Lennox, a giant amoeba.
However, the movie I am reviewing is not from the future, but has been greatly unappreciated for far too long. I am talking about the 2000 movie Beautiful, directed by Sally Field and starring Minnie Driver as Mona Hibbard, a woman who strives to become Miss America. A movie I believe to be feminist.
For those of you who haven’t caught it on cable recently, I will over-summarize the plot. It begins with a young girl named Mona Hibbard. Young Mona’s mother, Nedra (Linda Hart), is possibly an alcoholic, and her step-dad is an asshole. Despite this, Mona is a girl with a dream: to become the winner of the Miss America pageant. Mona is not conventionally beautiful—she has dark curly hair, freckles, and crooked teeth—but she is ambitious. She enters any pageant she can. However, after losing more than a few, her mother refuses to drive Mona to another pageant. Now this is where usually someone would save Mona. Perhaps a kindly fellow would tell her she is beautiful and should do her best or some other crap. That isn’t what happens.
Mona saves herself. She is the one who calls herself beautiful. At twelve years old, Mona starts delivering groceries on her bike. She also bikes to the pageants which are often many miles away. Mona pays for the braces on her teeth and the entry fees to the pageants. After noticing that a girl in her Home Ec. class named Ruby Stilwell is a pretty good seamstress, she becomes friends with her in order to get costumes. Is it selfish? Yes, somewhat. But Ruby had always been alone before Mona, and likes that Mona appreciates her talents. They soon become actual best friends, and with the help of Ruby’s kindly grandmother, Mona gains two loving and supportive people in her life. However, she still has to pay for fabric, and for voice and dance lessons. She still has a mother who doesn’t understand her, and she still has to work twice as hard as the other girls who have parents to pay for things. Young Mona is my favorite character in the movie. She shows strength and determination beyond her years. She knows that she can be more than what life has given her, so she goes for it. It’s very inspiring. Sadly, I cannot say the same for adult Mona.
Adult Mona (Minnie Driver) is not such a great person. She is selfish, needy, and relies too heavily on her best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams). While her ambition and drive were great characteristics, they have morphed into pure selfishness, and she is not afraid to crush people to get to the top. She even seriously hurt a fellow contestant after the contestant stole her routine. However, Mona soon has an even more serious problem: while she is still a teenager, she becomes pregnant. As mothers and legal guardians cannot participate in the Miss America pageant, Ruby claims the baby and raises it as her own. Mona and Ruby become roommates and Mona continues to work hard for the crown.
At first glance, the friendship between these two women seems to be more beneficial to Mona than it is to Ruby. In many ways it is, but while Mona does seem completely selfish, she actually does appreciate Ruby and all that Ruby has done for her. Ruby is her best friend, and
Mona would do anything for her. Mona cares for her, and tries to help Ruby in many ways as well. She tries to bring her out of her shell. They laugh and joke and simply enjoy each others’ company. Hell, they raise a child together! Although they are not lovers (as far as we know) they are two single women who raise a cute little soccer-playing girl named Vanessa (Hallie Eisenberg) without the aid of a man.
Mona wins the Miss Illinois state title and is on her way to achieving her dream. Unfortunately, Ruby, who works as a nurse in an old age home, is suddenly accused of committing euthanasia when a patient under her care purposely overdoses on sleeping pills. With Ruby in prison awaiting trial, Mona has to take care of Vanessa, a thing she has been somewhat afraid to do. The two do not get along well. Vanessa finds Mona to be superficial, mean, and selfish. After learning that her mother will not be attending the pageant, Mona drives over to her old house with Vanessa in tow. Soon Vanessa learns just how hard Mona’s life was and how she had to struggle to believe in her own self-worth. After Mona fails to get her mother to go to the pageant she finally asks the question she has wanted to ask her mother her whole life:
Mona: “Mom, why do you hate me?”
Mona’s mom: “I don’t hate you. I don’t understand you.”
Mona: “What’s to understand?”
Mona’s mom: “I’m afraid of you. That look in your eye, like you were hungry for something, but I could never get you to eat anything!”
That is really what the movie is about. The relationships between mothers and daughters. Mona’s mother relies completely on her husband. She is a woman without ambition and is afraid of her own daughter’s hunger to be more than what she is. She cannot even leave the house to attend the one thing her daughter has asked her for, because her jerk of a husband doesn’t want to go. Mona wanted to show her mother what she had been fighting to become, but instead of being proud, her mother turns away.
In the end Mona realizes that Vanessa is more important than anything and confesses onstage that Vanessa is her daughter. Fortunately, many women took it as a form of protest. One woman even mistakes Mona’s forfeit as “…a political statement about maintaining self-esteem in our patriarchal society”, a telling sign of the times we still live in.
Although the movie has problems, it has many things going for it. It was directed by a woman, which is still far too rare. It has more than one strong female lead, and they each have a goal that they take steps to achieve. In a movie where women are judged by men, there are only enough men to move the story along. Those with the lines are ladies, and they are achieving their own dreams. If nothing else, it passes the The Bechdel Test, which is surprisingly difficult for most movies. It’s a shame that people often only look at the surface of movies. It’s not until you really dig deep that lessons can truly be learned. I liked this movie when I was a kid. I admired Mona’s determination and perseverance in the face of familial opposition and contestant competition, and I haven’t changed my mind. Beautiful can be a bit sappy, and it is pretty unrealistic, but the real lesson here is that with a lot of hard work and some good friends, you can do some amazing things.