Miss Arizona (McAlpin, 2018)

Miss Arizona is a hard film to dislike, but it turns out to be an even harder film to recommend.

I am not typically in the habit of writing responses to indies or modestly-budgeted films that I don’t recommend in some way. Life’s short and the market is saturated with possibilities.

In several ways, however, Miss Arizona was instructively mediocre. Although it is not a “Christian” film by branding or marketing, its flatness has much in common with that genre. That fact makes me want to comment on it in order to illustrate that not all critiques of these sorts of films are ideologically driven.

The back of Miss Arizona‘s DVD cover reads: “This one’s an anthem for any woman who’s ever been told to sit still and look pretty / This one’s for the marginalized / This one’s for the girls.” This sort of ad text suggests that the film is operating on the most reductive ideological plane possible. “Marginalized,” “pretty,” and “girls” are all more-or-less interchangeable markers of the outsider, an indication that the film sees the world in binary terms (empowered/ostracized) . “Outsider” or “ostracized” is not an umbrella term that covers a range of people, some of whom might conflict with each other.

The film’s heroine, Rose Raynes (Johanna Brady) gets corralled into teaching a life-skills class at a woman’s shelter. We’ve already been shown that she is herself the victim of a controlling husband, so the potential for conflict between the rich housewife with no practical skills and the women of the shelter who don’t value her ostensible skills (pageant poise) is unsustainable. The film can’t decide if it wants to be a narrative of Rose’s awakening to her own marginalized status or of Rose’s transformation from entitled to compassionate. As a result, it tries to have it both ways. Rose aligns herself with the ostracized by acknowledging her own contempt for the things she previously prided herself in. But this change is too quick and too devoid of cost. As a result, the conflict is never examined and certainly never interrogated. The women at the shelter may have economic or social needs that must be addressed, but they do not need to learn anything about themselves or others. At least nothing that Rose could possibly teach.

This lack of internal conflict is amplified in the film’s central episode in which Rose pretends to be a drag queen at a gay bar to try to win some prize money. She will, of course, be found out, but rather than this deception accentuating underlying tensions between gays and straights, it is resolved with a codified endorsement from one of the queens’ senior members. She has talked to Rose privately and endorses her good intentions. Rose (and the other members of the shelter) are blissfully free of any actual prejudice towards gays, so the one drag queen not ready to forgive (and surrender prize money) is shown to be the truly intolerant one. Mistakes not made by the privileged (i.e. Rose’s rich husband) are mistakes born out of good intentions and hence easily forgiven.

Socially and politically, I identify as a liberal, so it’s not that I object to the film’s ideological view of the world in principle. Culturally, I try to earn the mantle of feminist, at least as much it is possible for any man to co-opt and use that label, so it’s not that I can’t recognize that women and gay (or trans) men are more often oppressed, both personally and systematically. It’s not that I find the film’s view of the world to be false so much as distorted. The lack of nuance with which patriarchy and heteronormativity are cast as the source of all that is wrong with the world don’t disqualify the film so much as render it uninteresting. There are plenty of films — Milk, Boy Erased, Call Me By My Name, Far From Heaven, The Hours — that set their sights on the same underlying societal targets and are all the more effective for showing how such systems don’t merely oppress the marginalized but also deform and co-opt them.

Last year’s underrated Netflix film Dumplin’, for example, similarly took on pageant culture. One major factor that made that film work was that it neither endorsed nor condemned the pageant experience. Instead, it required two friends on either side of a cultural divide to negotiate their views of pageants and the orthodoxy they purportedly represent. What might merely have been a story of satire or ridicule gradually became one of self-examination and transformation. Rose’s personal situation changes in Miss Arizona, but I would argue she still is very much the same person she was when she won the pageant. If she has changed it is to be slightly braver in refusing to accept her lack of self-esteem and self-worth as a necessary cost for freedom from the more oppressive forms of poverty.

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