Robin Givhan on Carrie Prejean, Elizabeth Edwards and Wanda Sykes

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, May 17, 2009

As Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA pageant, basked in the publicity generated by Miss California's topless pictures and her stance against same-sex marriage, the most perceptive bit of verbiage to slither forth from his -- or anyone's -- mouth has to do with the beauty queen's Barbie doll looks.

Trump suggested that some folks had worked themselves into a lather about Carrie Prejean's marriage comment because she is a beautiful woman.

Perhaps Trump was merely observing that people take note of attractive women. But just because an audience gives a woman a long admiring look does not mean that it is paying attention to what she has to say. Any pretty woman who has been dismissed as an airhead can attest to this prejudice.

Still, looks -- or more specifically, a disconnect over looks -- played a role in how people responded to Prejean. As much as people like to pretend that looks don't matter, there are archetypes ingrained in our subconscious about what certain kinds of people are supposed to look like. And we make assumptions all the time based on those archetypes. When they don't match up, sometimes the accompanying discombobulation can be a pleasant surprise. As when the boy in the baggy pants and bandana turns out to be smartest guy in the class. When the fashion victim announces she has a doctorate in physics. Or when the nerdy talent show contestant turns out to have the voice of a diva.

Savvy folks use stereotypes to their advantage, throwing off the competition or lowering the bar so that when they clear it, it seems that much more impressive.

But recently, those sorts of disconnects have left people distressed. Pundits are perturbed because, in interviews, Elizabeth Edwards displayed little concern for the baby that might be her husband's love child. Comedian Wanda Sykes has been taken to the woodshed because her humor at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner turned pointed. Words alone didn't cause all that aggravation. A lot of it had to do with the person doing the talking. And how she looks.

Trump did due diligence before laying blame for the defense of marriage kerfuffle on Prejean's bikini-babe body. He noted that he'd carefully inspected the revealing photos of her -- a task that surely must have been grueling -- and found no cause for alarm or for revoking her state title. He defended her right to speak her mind and added that her position on same-sex marriage was similar to the president's.

So why would people get upset about a comment from a pageant contestant who, by the way, wasn't even the winner?

When Prejean's inquisitor, the blogger known as Perez Hilton, asked about same-sex marriage, no one was really expecting her to say anything beyond some mumbled combination of the words "world peace," "love" and "tolerance." But then she had the nerve to have an opinion -- however awkwardly stated. And not only that, it wasn't the point of view the audience expected from a 22-year-old blonde who happily struts her surgically enhanced stuff in a bikini on national television in the sort of competition that has inspired more than a few drag shows. Prejean took a conservative stance. And in the cultural field guide, she is not what a conservative woman who puts her Christianity out there for public consumption is supposed to look like.

She was not buttoned up. She did not look like an escapee from "Jesus Camp." Prejean looked like someone who enjoys a good cosmo.

Prejean's words landed like a sucker punch on many who thought they knew what the opponents of same-sex marriage look like.

Edwards -- diagnosed with incurable cancer, betrayed by a cheating husband -- has written a memoir and has proceeded to promote it with interviews during which she refuses to name the other woman and speaks dismissively of the baby that may or may not be her husband's.

The reaction to Edwards's publicity campaign has generated some sympathy for her. But she also has been subject to an inordinate amount of tsk-tsking for failing to articulate the perfunctory speech about the baby's innocence and how everyone needs to do what's in the child's best interest, even as every adult involved knows such words are little more than posturing before the mudslinging begins.

Instead, this woman with the soft Southern accent and the maternal air has essentially said that the baby is not her concern. That is not the expected response from a woman whose figure is devoid of sharp lines and who always seems to be dressed for a parent-teacher conference. Would people respond with the same shock if Edwards had the body of a marathoner and the wardrobe of Carrie Bradshaw? Probably not. Because a woman who looks like that is presumed to be self-involved until proven otherwise.

And in the sober light of the workday, comedian Wanda Sykes was assailed for taking aim at Rush Limbaugh in her monologue at the WHCA dinner. Suddenly, media folks forgot the meaning of hyperbole. Then they started debating Sykes's jokes, and the president's chuckling over them.

But in the midst of all the hand-wringing, one couldn't shake a certain subtext. Sykes, a petite black woman with a sassy mouth, had gotten pointed, political and a tad bit angry. It was as if everyone expected her to leave her opinions with the Secret Service and just dish out jovial, but mush-mouthed, commentary about being beleaguered and put-upon.

Sykes is known for her sharp tongue. She's more Bill Maher than Bill Cosby. But there's an assumption that white male comics will speak their mind and risk being offensive to get the laugh. (When Stephen Colbert performed two years ago, the press knew he'd offend some in the audience, they just didn't realize it would be them.) If Maher had made the same comments, the audience probably would have been thankful that he didn't say anything really appalling. With Sykes, it was more like: Shame on her.

Everyone knows that appearances can be deceiving, but sometimes they can leave you speechless.

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