Gender Efficiency in Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’. By Leah Gaus (2022)

Key phrases: femininity, gender efficiency, drag, pageant, post-feminism, Little Miss Sunshine, Dumplin’

“There’s an absurdity concerned in sporting a washing go well with with heels,” says Kimberly H. Hamlin, writer of an article on the primary years of the Miss America magnificence pageant. “Are we supposed to really do one thing in a swimsuit or simply look good?” (qtd. in Bernard). In accordance with the pageant trade, it’s the latter. Pageant movies don’t say any in a different way, highlighting the rigorous self-discipline required to even be a contestant, not to mention to put on the crown. From thriller-comedy Drop Lifeless Beautiful (Jann, 1999) and the eternal Miss Congeniality (Petrie, 2000) to curler derby drama Whip It (Barrymore, 2009), the pageant trade’s excessive requirements of femininity are exemplified by means of ladies who threaten to transgress them. Little Miss Sunshine (Faris and Dayton, 2006) and Dumplin’ (Fletcher, 2018) are not any exception, that includes fundamental characters who problem these expectations, whether or not or not they intend to take action. By the expertise class of the pageant in every movie, Olive (Abigail Breslin) and Will (Danielle Macdonald) expose gender as a efficiency, concurrently transgressing the pageant’s definition of femininity and exuding to-be-looked-at-ness; moreover, every movie critiques sexism whereas participating with post-feminism, albeit to totally different extents.

For the reason that first Miss America pageant in 1921, the trade has carried out a selected kind of femininity. As Sarah Banet-Weiser and Laura Portwood-Stacer articulate of their article “I simply wish to be me once more!,” the pageant features as a “important supply of information for a lot of younger ladies concerning the disciplinary practices of femininity” (257). From shaving their legs to styling their hair and make-up, contestants are required to constantly look their greatest, as measured by the excessive requirements of femininity that our patriarchal society calls for. Moreover, the pageant as an establishment “[serves] to characterize a great femininity that embodies very particular classed, raced, and sexualized gender performances” (Esposito and Happel 42) and, on the stage, this side of efficiency is amplified. In accordance with Judith Butler, gender theorist and thinker, gender is “an identification constituted in time—an identification instituted by means of a stylized repetition of acts” (402, authentic emphasis). She goes on to explain how gender is outlined by its efficiency:

As a result of there’s neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an goal ideally suited to which gender aspires; as a result of gender just isn’t a truth, the varied acts of gender create the thought of gender, and with out these acts, there can be no gender in any respect. (Butler 405)

The aforementioned definition of femininity is curated by means of extremely regulated acts on the planet of magnificence pageants, from exactly placing on layers of make-up to strolling throughout a stage in stiletto heels. The primary characters in Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ carry out their gender in a manner that transgresses the pageant’s expectations of femininity, and in selecting to take action within the expertise portion of the competitors, this gender transgression is additional emphasised. The expertise spherical is the one portion of the pageant the place a single contestant is on stage, subsequently placing all the consideration on them; it’s additionally the one portion the place bending the foundations of femininity and customary composure is remotely acceptable, permitting contestants to showcase theatrical abilities like ventriloquism or taking part in water glasses, as proven in Miss Congeniality. Since this spherical is a efficiency in and of itself, it echoes Butler’s argument that gender is a efficiency and features as essentially the most societally acceptable setting for the primary characters’ actions, regardless of the implications that happen.

Little Miss Sunshine follows ten-year-old Olive, who enters the eponymous magnificence pageant in California; when her dysfunctional household embarks on a highway journey to get her there on time, chaos ensues. By her masculine apparel and hypersexualized dance in the course of the expertise spherical, Olive “disrupts normative gender expectations and behaviors by performing her gender in transgressive methods on the pageant” (Esposito and Happel 38). Earlier than taking the stage, she replaces her signature glasses with a black high hat, buying and selling one masculine image for one more (1:28:53). In sporting glasses, Olive embodies the girl who appears to be like, “[signifying] concurrently intellectuality and undesirability; however the second she removes her glasses… she is remodeled into spectacle, the very image of want” (Doane 139). Her actions characterize the pageant’s sexualization of its contestants, irrespective of their age; even supposing Olive and the women competing for the title of Little Miss Sunshine are youngsters, they’re nonetheless anticipated to reside as much as the established expectations of magnificence queens. As a masculine image in holding the flexibility to gaze, glasses diminish femininity, which can’t be tolerated on the pageant stage. The pageant’s excessive requirements stress Olive to embody femininity to the most effective of her capacity, so she removes her glasses, subsequently signifying her try to adapt to those expectations and her standing as an object of the male gaze held by the viewers.

Nonetheless, Olive instantly replaces her glasses with a high hat, which permits her to transgress the pageant’s gender requirements in one other manner. Generally related to magic and masculinity, high hats connote a way of energy, much like glasses; whereas the latter isn’t allowed on the stage, the previous will be perceived as a cute accent, nearly like a baby sporting her mom’s too-big excessive heels. The highest hat is simply the ultimate contact on her outfit, which features a black vest and pair of pants, white collared shirt, and brilliant crimson tie, all of which connote masculinity. As we see all through the movie, the opposite contestants put on brilliant make-up and frilly clothes with sequins, the apparel anticipated of kid magnificence pageant contestants. In breaking these expectations of femininity by means of her apparel, Olive transgresses the gender requirements of the pageant trade, subsequently exposing the absurdity of those calls for.

Moreover, Olive’s hypersexualized expertise efficiency affords an ironic commentary on the pageant’s sexualization of its contestants (1:30:00-1:35:25). She begins dealing with together with her again to the viewers, lengthy hair hanging previous her waist and emphasizing her femininity; at this level, the digicam takes on the gaze of the group, slicing to a reverse shot from the opposite aspect of Olive when she clasps her arms above her head and smiles (see Determine 1). In permitting viewers to see her face on this second, earlier than her dance has even really begun, Faris and Dayton make it clear that she is having fun with herself—and that to her, it’s all simply quite a lot of enjoyable. The camerawork continues to alternate between the gaze of the viewers, pictures from behind Olive dealing with into the group, and close-ups of her members of the family. Olive proceeds to toss her high hat off-stage, steadily strip her garments, crawl throughout the stage like a lion, and throw her tie on the judges. As viewers members go away and the announcer makes an attempt to corral her off-stage, adopted by her male members of the family preventing with him in protest, Olive runs round in circles and continues to bounce. As Jennifer Esposito and Alison Happel argue of their essay, “Pageant Hassle: An Exploration of Gender Transgression in Little Miss Sunshine”: “What’s sinister concerning the pageant officers ‘policing’ the sexualization of Olive’s efficiency is that the sanctioned femininity relied on sexual undertones as effectively” (51). In attempting to cease her efficiency, the announcer symbolizes the pageant trade’s aversion to sexualizing youngsters, even supposing it does so in ways in which mainstream media condones. This contains using quick skirts, full faces of make-up, volumized hair, and excessive heels, all for the aim of defining femininity and assembly these excessive requirements. Whatever the sexual undertones the pageant harbors, it “stays irrevocably linked to a specific Puritan ideally suited of intercourse and sexuality” (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer 261), and subsequently rejects Olive’s “dangerous woman” efficiency (see Determine 2).

All through her complete efficiency, the digicam takes on totally different gazes of the viewers, judges, and a 3rd place from behind Olive, however viewers are by no means sutured into her personal gaze immediately. Whereas we come near doing so by means of the digicam positioning itself to look out into the viewers, we aren’t totally put into her place as viewers. In making this choice, Faris and Dayton permit for extra pictures of Olive’s pleased smile, conveying the extent to which she is having fun with the dance; this additionally features nearly like a slap within the face to the pageant trade, which tried to impose its requirements onto her. Moreover, by reserving Olive’s gaze, the administrators place the spectator within the function of viewers member among the many crowd, emphasizing Olive’s outward expression of emotion versus the inward stress and stress the pageant trade inflicts upon her. Faris and Dayton give attention to her sexualized efficiency and the perform of gender inside it, versus the emotional results the trade locations on its contestants. It’s Olive’s interruption within the pageant’s façade that “successfully exposes all of gender as a efficiency, particularly as a socially and culturally mediated efficiency” (Esposito and Happel 51). This interruption ends in punishment for Olive, as a result of her “dangerous woman” habits is taken into account inappropriate and in opposition to what the pageant committee claims to face for; after the fiasco, Olive and her household are taken to the police station, the place they’re advised they will go away so long as they by no means enter Olive right into a magnificence pageant in California once more.

Much like Little Miss Sunshine, the Netflix movie Dumplin’ additionally focuses on the pageant trade and gender efficiency. Plus-size teenager Willowdean enters her former magnificence queen mom’s pageant as a protest to the establishment, which escalates when her mates comply with her lead. Whereas her mom calls her “Dumplin’,” Willowdean prefers to go by “Will,” foreshadowing the gender transgression that comes later within the movie. Together with her aunt’s latest passing, Will retreats into their shared love of Dolly Parton, who significantly influences her expertise efficiency and private development all through the movie. As a way to really feel nearer to her, Will visits The Hideaway, a bar that her aunt used to go to, solely to find that the institution hosts Dolly-themed drag reveals. The queens turn into her help system, giving her the instruments essential to “determine who she is and do it on goal,” as her idol as soon as mentioned; Will does so not solely in life however on the pageant stage, selecting to be her fabulous self versus attempting to win or conform. When Will and her mates deliver bins of garments to the bar, queens Candee (Ginger Minj) and Rhea (Harold Perrineau) train them how one can dance, put collectively outfits, and do magic methods with silk scarves (1:08:30-1:11:32). Rhea envisions a proper outfit with sequins and a feathered collar for Will, and Candee asks the women, “Are you prepared to search out out what it takes to be an actual pageant queen?” By all of those actions, the queens present them that “‘ideally suited’ femininity is definitely simply profitable drag” (Welton 22), which Will embodies in her expertise efficiency.

By her expertise wardrobe, which echoes Olive’s in Little Miss Sunshine, Will concurrently performs femininity outlined as profitable drag and transgresses the pageant’s gender expectations (1:27:40-1:30:17). She wears a shimmering crimson high and lengthy black cape, each lined in sparkles, and her voluminous hair and full face of make-up catch the sunshine, very like customary drag apparel. Not solely does Will gown the a part of a drag queen, however she acts it, too—she lip syncs to Dolly’s “Right here You Come Once more” whereas performing choreographed dance strikes, all that are repeatedly included into drag. Her magic methods perform because the comedian aid portion of a drag efficiency, which normally consists of outrageous gestures and actions or making jokes. Moreover, the group constantly cheers and a brilliant highlight shines on Will all through her efficiency, echoing the earlier drag reveals within the movie. Alongside this presence of femininity, Can even manages to transgress the pageant’s requirements by sporting pants, a high hat, a bow tie, and a knotted string performing as a second bow tie, all which connote masculinity; in addition to her face, neck, and arms, all of her pores and skin is roofed, in contrast to the opposite contestants who put on quick clothes (see Determine 3). Inside the first few moments of her efficiency, she tosses her high hat to the aspect to place emphasis on her hair, very like Olive did. Nonetheless, her gender transgression is put in a extra constructive gentle—the viewers cheers all through and provides a standing ovation. We hear feedback like “How does she do it?” from her buddy Millie (Maddie Baillio) and “I prefer it” with a smile from the judges. The digicam takes on the gaze of the viewers by means of the vast majority of her efficiency, highlighting how captivated the viewers are; subsequently, as spectators, we tackle the persona of the viewers, entranced by Will’s steady eye contact and assured actions. When her efficiency is full, she throws streamers on the digicam positioned within the viewers (and subsequently at us as spectators) and clapping ensues, additional implying how splendidly her act is perceived.

The digicam cuts to a close-up of Will’s smiling face wanting over her shoulder, radiant within the barely blue highlight. Her face is remarkably pale, lips ruby crimson, and tooth completely white. Her easy complexion, black mascara, and voluminous hair are entrance and heart, exemplifying all the things the pageant says a lady ought to be; the curtain shimmers behind her and the group cheers within the background, drawing all consideration to Will. Her bow ties can’t be seen on this shot, successfully disrobing her of all masculine qualities and underscoring her femininity. Nonetheless, since her efficiency of femininity stems from drag, this shot helps the argument that ideally suited femininity and profitable drag are one in the identical. Moreover, the blue gentle mixed together with her sexualized look connotes a stage of necrophilia,[i] insinuating that this explicit model of Will is just too good for this world; the extent of magnificence that the pageant expects from its contestants is unattainable, subsequently unable to completely exist in our sphere (see Determine 4).

In the long run, it’s revealed that Will’s track alternative and expertise wardrobe weren’t accepted, in addition to her formal outfit, and any modifications after committee approvals lead to speedy disqualification. Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), her mom, says that she will be able to’t stroll within the ultimate spherical as a result of it “wouldn’t be honest to the opposite ladies,” so Will turns into disqualified from the competitors whatever the crowd’s enthusiastic response. Each Olive and Can have repercussions for his or her gender efficiency and transgression, signifying that regardless that some could have loved it (Olive’s household and Will’s viewers), their actions are finally unacceptable.

The sentiment that ideally suited femininity is drag is additional emphasised by means of Rosie’s apparel when she pronounces the ultimate outcomes of the pageant (1:37:55-1:39:44). When her gown is unexpectedly too small, Rhea lends her one of many Dolly outfits she had in her trunk—a brief, shimmery, brilliant blue gown with a long-sleeved, floor-length feathered gown. Rosie is barely reluctant to put on it, however with out some other choice, she has to; as a former magnificence queen and the embodiment of the trade’s excessive requirements of femininity all through the movie, her hesitation is evident. When she crosses the stage, the digicam tilts up and down her physique, from silver heels to the tiara upon her head. This sexualization isn’t current when Will is featured, highlighting Rosie’s desirability and possession of female traits. Within the crowd, Rhea even asks Candee, “Do I look that good in that gown?” and will get a no in response. The viewers laughs, indicating their questioning of Rosie’s outfit, to which she shakes her head and raises her arms, taking part in into it; as a substitute of commenting, nonetheless, she launches into her formal remarks. The outfit is all the things drag embodies, and in sporting it to crown the winner of a pageant that helps conventional requirements of femininity, the previous magnificence queen successfully equates the 2.

Whereas Will isn’t allowed to stroll as a contestant, she’s permitted to escort her buddy Ellen (Odeya Rush) on-stage, which she does in her unapproved brilliant crimson sparkly robe and feathered collar. After strolling her buddy to heart stage to pose for the viewers, Will stands subsequent to her mom and the 2 clasp arms, smiling in solidarity. The digicam cuts to a close-up of their laughing faces and, as Will strikes to escort Ellen to her place on the platform, then cuts to a protracted shot displaying everything of the stage. In stark distinction to Will and Rosie’s colourful robes, the 2 contestants standing on the platform put on white clothes, additional highlighting the mom and daughter duo. Standing aspect by aspect of their fabulous outfits, the 2 ladies additional show that “‘ideally suited’ femininity is definitely simply profitable drag” (Welton 22) and subsequently finally a efficiency.

Earlier than the expertise spherical, the Miss Teen Bluebonnet competitors features a “well being and health spherical,” in any other case often known as the swimsuit portion. Actually essentially the most sexualized spherical of the sweetness pageant, the swimsuit competitors places ladies’s our bodies on show, reinforcing the pageant’s expectations of self-discipline towards femininity and exuding to-be-looked-at-ness. As Laura Mulvey articulates, “Girl displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and performs to and signifies male want” (63). This portion “[encourages] audiences to focus relentlessly on the visible character of ladies’s our bodies” (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer 258) and, as a consequence of those rigorous requirements, many pageant contestants have consuming problems (Gilbert). In June 2018, Miss America determined to chop the swimsuit spherical, changing it with an interview portion on every contestant’s passions and what sporting the crown means to them (Stewart). Rebranded as Miss America 2.0 and not a pageant however a contest, the group claims to be inclusive with entry necessities stating nothing about weight or dimension, solely that contestants should be in “moderately good well being” (“Develop into a Candidate”). As Millie states in Dumplin’, “There’s nothing within the guidelines that claims large ladies needn’t apply.”

It’s with this perspective that Will and Ellen take the stage in matching one-piece swimsuits, duct tape on their stomachs spelling out the phrase, “Each physique is a swimsuit physique” (1:25:28-1:26:24). Thought of a rebellious transfer for a movie that’s “characterised extra by homespun appeal than progressive politics” (Gilbert), the ladies’s choice causes a small fracture within the pageant trade’s fastidiously orchestrated definition of femininity. The digicam doesn’t tilt or sexualize their our bodies, merely displaying the ladies standing aspect by aspect after which slicing to the viewers, which claps and provides a standing ovation; after they exit the stage, the announcer even says, “Aren’t these ladies wonderful?” Whereas their response defies the stereotype that everybody concerned in pageants is unsupportive and catty, it frankly appears too constructive.

Dumplin’ holds an open-mindedness that different extra essential pageant movies don’t—it seeks to redefine magnificence with a body-positive mindset, versus abolishing magnificence pageants all collectively. Of their article, Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer declare that girls are portrayed extra positively in latest client media, however these modifications are “a part of aggressive new market methods moderately than indications of social and political modifications inside dominant gender relations within the US” (260). In that includes plus-size fundamental characters who compete in pageants, Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ broadcast body-positive messages, however neither movie critically questions how societal beliefs of femininity got here to be. Somewhat, they tackle post-feminism to totally different extents, emphasizing the flexibility of ladies to make particular person decisions. Whereas Little Miss Sunshine was launched in an age that claims critiquing sexism is pointless, Dumplin’ is surrounded by discourse that encourages and advocates for this essential considering, and every movie responds accordingly.

In accordance with Rosalind Gill, post-feminism is a “sensibility” that features plenty of notions, resembling the next: “femininity is a bodily property; … the emphasis on self-surveillance, monitoring and self-discipline; a spotlight upon individualism, alternative and empowerment; [and] the dominance of a makeover paradigm” (137). Esposito and Happel argue that Little Miss Sunshine was created in a “post-feminist local weather that… [asserts] that social critiques of sexism and patriarchy are pointless” (39), focusing as a substitute on ladies’s standing as free brokers and skill to make decisions as they want. The movie strikes a cautious steadiness between critiquing the sexism throughout the pageant trade an excessive amount of and never critiquing it in any respect. Sheryl (Toni Collette), Olive’s mom, embodies the perfect of particular person alternative by means of ignoring the political connotations of the pageant and believing that the one necessary factor is her daughter’s particular person choice to take part. Earlier than Olive goes on stage, the boys in her household inform Sheryl that they need her to give up the pageant, and she or he insists in any other case, saying, “You’ve gotta let Olive be Olive.” Whereas this immediately speaks to post-feminism, the overt sexualized nature of Olive’s efficiency features as a critique of sexism. In making her act hypersexualized, Olive attracts consideration to the objectification of ladies within the pageant trade, subsequently critiquing its messages. By centering the movie on Olive’s decisions and presenting her hypersexualized efficiency as ridiculous as a result of she doesn’t perceive why it’s “inappropriate,” the movie critiques sexism below the guise of post-feminism.

However, whereas Will and her mates search to “subvert the system from inside” (Gilbert) in Dumplin’, their purpose isn’t to demolish pageants solely—moderately, to redefine magnificence. In acknowledging and protesting the pageant’s points, the movie strays away from post-feminism; at one level throughout her preliminary audition, unconventional feminist Hannah chants on stage, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, patriarchy has obtained to go!” In opposing post-feminism’s notion that sexism shouldn’t be critiqued by brazenly critiquing it, Dumplin’ is in direct opposition to post-feminism in a manner that Little Miss Sunshine just isn’t. Nonetheless, as a result of its body-positive mindset facilities on Will and Millie’s capacity to take part and the help of their fellow contestants, the movie leans towards a choice-based perspective. Subsequently, whereas Dumplin’ is additional away from a post-feminist mentality than Little Miss Sunshine, the movie nonetheless leans into the person empowerment side of post-feminism.

In conclusion, Little Miss Sunshine and Dumplin’ illustrate that the pageant trade’s definition of femininity is nothing greater than a efficiency. The Miss America crown is “attainable by ‘unusual’ ladies,” however solely “those that attempt,” those that examine all of the bins (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer). In concurrently conforming to and transgressing the pageant’s expectations, Olive and Will deconstruct the notion of ideally suited femininity, displaying {that a} sure form of magic lies in determining who you’re and doing it on goal—all as a result of you have got the selection to take action. The patriarchy may not prefer it, although.


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Dumplin’. Directed by Anne Fletcher, Netflix, 2018.

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Creator Biography

Leah Gaus is a latest graduate of Miami College with a bachelor’s diploma in artistic writing {and professional} writing, in addition to a minor in ladies’s, gender, and sexuality research. Her work will be present in The Rumpus, Aquifer: The Florida Overview On-line, Watershed Overview, and extra.

Mentor Biography

Katie N. Johnson is Professor of English and Affiliate of Movie Research at Miami College. She is the writer of Sisters in Sin: Brothel Drama in America and Intercourse for Sale: Six Progressive-Period Brothel Dramas. Her newest guide is about Eugene O’Neill and the breaking of the colour line in theatre and movie.

Division Overview

The Division of English at Miami College endeavors to organize college students to learn and write critically, imaginatively, and successfully. The undergraduate and graduate diploma packages in Composition and Rhetoric, Artistic Writing, Linguistics, and Literature place this neighborhood on the heart of liberal arts schooling at Miami.

[i] For extra details about this connotation, please see: Katie N. Johnson, “Consumptive Stylish: The Postfeminist Recycling of Camille in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!Prostitution and Intercourse Work in World Cinema: New Takes on Fallen Girls, edited by Danielle Hipkins and Kate Taylor-Jones, 2017, pp. 219-240.

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