In the August 3, 1963 New Yorker, there was a funny in the Talk of the Town. It concerned a beauty pageant. It makes remarkable reading.
The beauty pageant was for National College Queen. The New Yorker reporter visited the contestants as they were posing before the ABC news cameras in Central Park for the contest in the Seven Lively Domestic Arts. One of them, of course, was coffee serving. Which is what the girls were doing. A spokesman pointed with pride to the fact that there was a Fullbright scholar and a Phi Beta Kappa among the candidates up for the crown. While they displayed their ability to brew up and serve coffee, they wore crowns on their heads.
This scene seems, today, rife with rage. How could any woman stand the patronizing, debasing, ridiculous treatment they were being accorded – basically, a quick course in second class humanship? But the New Yorker, a magazine which had employed Dorothy Parker and, in 1963, employed, among others, Renata Adler, didn’t see it like that.
“Then, clustering prettily for the ABC crew around one large skillet, the girls turned to the more practical lively homemaking art of Frying Eggs. One by one, twelve eggs were cracked into the pan with enormous care. Two yolks broke. None of the eggs cooked. Miss Bowie [the spokesperson] blushing beneath her turban, hurriedly confessed to ABC that she had forgotten to pre-heat the skillet, and then apologized to the head chef of the Tavern, who had been standing by with a pepper mill. …
The twelve beautiful brain-trusters meanwhile had moved on to tackle the art of Mixing Drinks in a Westinghouse blender. Having each been presented with another egg, pineapple juice, milk, watercress and chocolate sauce, they were told to combine the elements in whatever way they saw fit. “We’re testing your imagination, girls,” Miss Bowie said.”
Although it is a separate and other regime of oppression, this little scenario does resemble, in its coordinates (the contrast between “brains” and the natural essence of the human type at the other end of the brains, as seen by the “typical” American) the battle royal in The Invisible Man. Of course, there is a grand, enduring difference between the regime of humiliation that marks the women in this scenario and the humiliation that marks the African-Americans in Ellison’s story, but it is still a form of ceremonial humiliation, as the reporter unconsciously makes clear with the continual reference to “brains” - the ‘brain-trust,” the “brainy” girls, etc.. It makes me curious about Miss University of Oklahoma, Miss University of Washington, Miss Purdue University and the rest of them. How did they thrive? Did any of them put a bomb up the ass of the Man in the late sixties, early seventies? It also makes me want to ask more about how ritualized humiliation so often emerges as part of a reward ceremony – don’t we see that, especially now, as the mechanics driving the scenarios coming out of D.C.?