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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Prejean saga a study in disconnect over looks


By Robin Givhan
Washington Post

As Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA pageant, basked in the publicity generated by Miss California's topless pictures and her stance against same-sex marriage, the most perceptive bit of verbiage to slither forth from his or anyone's mouth has to do with the beauty queens's looks.

Trump suggested that some folks had worked themselves into a lather about Carrie Prejean's marriage comment because she is a beautiful woman.

Perhaps Trump was merely observing that people take note of attractive women. But just because an audience gives a woman a long admiring look does not mean that it is paying attention to what she has to say. Any pretty woman who has been dismissed as an airhead can attest to this prejudice.

Still, looks or more specifically, a disconnect over looks played a role in how people responded to Prejean. As much as people like to pretend that looks don't matter, we make assumptions all the time based on those archetypes ingrained in our subconscious about what certain kinds of people should look like. Savvy folks use stereotypes to their advantage, throwing off the competition or lowering the bar so when they clear it, it's more impressive.

But recently, those sorts of disconnects have left people distressed. Pundits are perturbed because, in interviews to promote her memoir, Elizabeth Edwards diagnosed with incurable cancer, betrayed by a cheating husband speaks dismissively of the baby that might be her husband's love child.

Comedian Wanda Sykes has been taken to the woodshed for taking aim at Rush Limbaugh in her monologue at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. But the aggravation wasn't just caused by words alone, but who uttered them. And how she looks.

In the midst of all the hand-wringing, one couldn't shake a certain subtext. Sykes, a petite black woman with a sassy mouth, had gotten pointed, political and a tad bit angry. It was as if everyone expected her to leave her opinions with the Secret Service and just dish out jovial, but mush-mouthed, commentary despite being known for her sharp tongue.

She's more Bill Maher than Bill Cosby. But there's an assumption that white male comics will speak their mind and risk being offensive to get the laugh. If Maher had made the same comments, the audience probably would have been thankful he didn't say anything really appalling. With Sykes, it was more like: Shame on her.

Trump did due diligence before laying blame for the defense of marriage kerfuffle on Prejean's bikini-babe body. He noted that he'd carefully inspected the revealing photos of her a task that surely must have been grueling and found no cause for alarm or for revoking her state title. He defended her right to speak her mind and added her position on same-sex marriage was similar to the president's.

So why would people get upset about a comment from a pageant contestant who, by the way, wasn't even the winner?

When Prejean's inquisitor, the blogger known as Perez Hilton, asked about same-sex marriage, no one really expected her to have the nerve to have an opinion, but it was also not what the audience expected from a 22-year-old blonde who struts her surgically enhanced bikini-clad body in a national televised competition that has inspired more than a few drag shows.

Prejean took a conservative stance that doesn't match the cultural field guide description of a woman who puts her Christianity out there for public consumption. She was not buttoned up. Prejean looked like someone who enjoys a good cosmo.

Prejean's words landed like a sucker punch on many who thought they knew what the opponents of same-sex marriage look like.

Everyone knows that appearances can be deceiving, but sometimes they can leave you speechless.