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And the Winner Is... Miss Universe 2016

Dream Fulfillment and Social Roles

One of the more iconic, and parodied, moments of beauty pageants is the Crowning Moment. More often than not there are two women "left standing" (there are exceptions, like this year's Miss America 2016 Pageant when the winner was called out from a larger group of remaining contestants). Both shake, hug, hold hands, whisper comments to one another, the host(ess) drags out the announcement, and then much exclaiming and fanfare commences after the announcement of the first-runner-up-- and the winner is implied.

But that's not what happened this year at Miss Universe 2016.

In case you missed it, here's a compilation of what went down on live television, with millions of people watching worldwide:

A truly awkward, cringe-worthy moment for everyone involved. But why do so many people care?

One of the most magical things about watching a beauty pageant is seeing, up-close, the fulfillment of someone's long-held dream. This is also one of the best parts of watching the Olympics, the Superbowl (think of those classic "I'm going to Disneyworld!" moments), and yes, even the Spelling Bee. I would enjoy seeing the in-person announcement of the Rhodes Scholars in the same way we see the live, suited version of the Heisman Trophy award. These live ceremonies honor the hard work that went into achieving something difficult. Pageants likely get an extra boost because of the, well, pageantry with the crown and the gown (and the earrings and lashes and lipstick and flowers).

While seeing a winner named up-close is compelling TV, the flip side is that you also see the "losers." While disappointment is understandable there are agreed upon social roles that you play in these moments. Whether it is a beauty pageant, sporting event, or academic activity, you are expected to shake hands or hug, and lose graciously in public (and react with tears or anything else in private). Tradition, and production assistants, dictate where you walk after, where your loved ones are ushered to, for how long you must maintain public composure.

In other words, there is expected behavior as each person involved fulfills their social role, in the dramaturgical sense of Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. What happened at this year's Miss Universe Pageant was a serious rupture precisely because someone (namely the emcee, Steve Harvey) violated a key part of his role. This led to a cascade effect such that the top three contestants and the outgoing queen were unsure of what their roles should be, along with the contestants who had already been eliminated.

It's not unprecedented that mistakes are made at beauty pageants. For example, last year this happened at Miss Florida America. Two things differ here that do make the situation for Miss Philippines and Miss Colombia Universe unprecedented though: 1) This occurred on live international TV. With over 10 million viewers. No one had time to form a new plan and allow new and social roles to first develop backstage. 2) This was not a tabulation error, but an error by the emcee.

If anything what occurred reminds us that all of this public pageantry is hard work. Emceeing is hard work. Maintaining poise and composure is hard work. Dream-fulfillment is hard work. As this story continues to dominate social media and major news sites (and sadly not other pageant-related stories like the tragic car accident right outside the hotel after Miss Universe last night, Miss Canada World being denied the opportunity to compete earlier in the weekend over political issues with China, and the appearance of Miss Slovenia at Miss Universe after a health crisis) it is clear that pageantry and dream fulfillment still exert a powerful hold on a diverse group of people worldwide.

More from Hilary Levey Friedman Ph.D.
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