Give the Kid a Break

August 28, 2007
Go on, Tommy, give the kid a break!
— Bill Dunnigan (played by Fred MacMurray) to chorus line director Tommy Elmore (Billy Wayne) on behalf of the sincere but clumsy Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) in The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Lauren Caitlin Upton, an 18-year-old from Lexington, South Carolina, plays soccer, does some modeling, and is headed this fall to Appalachian State University to study graphic arts. She hopes some day to design special effects for movies and television. She also hopes some day to live down the ridicule that has been heaped upon her since her appearance last week as a contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant.

Beauty pageants such as Miss Teen USA, Miss Universe, and Miss America (which bills itself as a scholarship and professional development organization for young women) all have a similar structure. The contestants present themselves in swim suits and evening gowns. Some pageants require a demonstration of talent, and all have a segment in which the hopeful title holder is asked a question and is judged on the poise and confidence with which she delivers her unrehearsed, extemporaneous answer. The questions can be as general as What is your definition of success? or as specific as What one thing about the world would you change? The answers are seldom thought-provoking and usually innocuous. Contestants believe that success is being true to yourself and honoring God while bringing about world peace and the end of global warming.

The question posed to Lauren Caitlin Upton, appearing as Miss Teen South Carolina, was this: Recent polls have shown that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is? Her answer, meandering and incomprehensible, is widely available on YouTube, blogs, and news sites. Google for it yourself if you must. I’m not going to post a link, because my purpose is not to add to Miss Upton’s burden, but to mitigate it.

On the basis of that meandering and incomprehensible answer, Lauren Caitlin Upton has been vilified in blogs, stand-up comedy routines, and even supposedly serious newspaper columns. She’s been called an idiot, and there have been calls for her forced sterilization so that there will be no more dumb blondes like her. Her performance has been held up as proof that America’s public school system is a complete failure and that there is no hope for the future of our country.

I saw Lauren Caitlin Upton yesterday on the Today show, where she was given much sympathy and support by Ann Curry (who couldn’t pronounce the name of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania correctly when she stood in a cornfield there last October to report on the Amish schoolhouse shooting) and Matt Lauer. Curry and Lauer described some of their own faux pas before cameras, and took pains to point out that their network is a co-owner of the pageant. Miss Upton, obviously more relaxed and better prepared than she was last Friday, proved to be able to laugh at herself and to accept that she will, at least in the short term, be a running joke. If she did not prove to be deeply thoughtful and intellectual, well, she’s 18. Give the kid a break.

I have nothing but compassion and sympathy for her because her meltdown moment is preserved forever and has opened her to ridicule by people who have never themselves answered a question on the fly even without cameras rolling, who do not understand or appreciate the context in which the original task to find the United States on a map might have been given, and who might not be able to deliver any useful response even if they had time to think about it.

The question itself is silly. I’ll tell you why I think a fifth of Americans can’t find the United States on a world map. I think it’s because a map is shoved at people walking out of Wal-Mart or walking away from a funnel cake stand at a state fair. Their minds are elsewhere, they don’t understand the question, they aren’t interested and blow the questioner off, or they have other things on their minds. Jay Leno uses that technique frequently. Would I have been able to say that, that is, ridicule the question itself, under the same circumstances Miss Upton found herself? Probably not. She made an effort to answer a ridiculous question. That her answer was ridiculous is regrettable.

She said she made a mistake. I hope someone shows Michael Vick the clip so he can see what a mistake actually looks like.

I wish Miss Upton well in her graphic design program at Appalachian State University. And I hope she slugs anyone who asks her if she’s going to learn to design maps.

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