From the way Hollywood presented it in the 90s, you’d think there was nothing more pathetic in the world than a single woman ordering takeout. Luckily, we had Sandra Bullock to take on that role, parody it from the inside, and turn it into a source of camp delight by the time the decade was over. Whereas her character in While You Were Sleeping was marked by a chronic addiction to Chinese delivery, she took this persona to new heights in Miss Congeniality, where she played FBI Special Agent Gracie Hart. Although the film revolves around a terrorist threat at a Miss America pageant, Gracie’s whole trajectory is defined by food. We first meet her battling her microwave for a heat-up pizza, and the first time we see her in the local police bar, she’s eating Ben and Jerry’s. Time and again, director Donald Petrie resorts to POV shots of Gracie eating, usually from disapproving cops, comically reminding us how rare it is to see women eat, full stop, in Hollywood cinema – or at least to eat without being framed as tragic.
Miss Congeniality taps into this fear of women consuming on screen, and intensifies it into a sublime camp. Gracie’s pleasure in eating apparently means she’s a tomboy, even butch – she doesn’t own a dress or a brush, and her colleagues refer to her as Dirty Harriet. She’s able to hold her own though, blithely dismissing her co-workers’ “misogynistic Neanderthal mentality” and never budging an inch to conform to their idea of what a woman should be. Even when they realise they have to send someone undercover to the Miss America pageant, and use a computer program to imagine all their female colleagues wearing a swimsuit, she takes in her stride – whether they’re leering at her body or insulting those of other women.
From the very outset, then, Gracie is largely immune to the misogyny thrown her way – and while that’s partly a result of the screenplay and direction, it’s also a testament to Bullock’s supreme gift for depicting appetite. While she’s conventionally good looking, Bullock is never afraid to resort to her resting chewing-face, or to texture it with a trademark laugh-snort – a willingness to be ridiculous on screen. She chews scenery in a literal way, sizing up each scene like she perpetually has gum in the corner of her mouth, which gives all her expressions and mannerisms an offbeat wryness. No surprise, then, that Gracie’s appetite is inextricable from her police work. We first meet her conducting an undercover sting operation in a Russian operation, before shifting to a setup where she barges through a huge crowd, badge in hand, for what initially seems like a catastrophic crime scene, but turns out to be her local Starbucks.
The key comic setup is that Gracie has to go undercover at the Miss American contest to apprehend a terrorist, meaning she has to acclimatise herself to a space full of women who are not supposed to eat. Going undercover means passing for femme, which in the film’s lexicon means passing for not being hungry – a prospect that is so comically antithetical to Bullock’s appetite-driven comedy that it’s simply never going to work. In her first glimpse of the job, she’s waxed and preened in a FBI hangar, as her male colleagues inspect the weapon cache, before emerging in a slo-mo, Michael Bay convoy shot – and abruptly tripping over her high heels. This sets the stage for a film that is more makeover parody than earnest makeover.
Key to that campy rapport is Gracie’s relationship with Victor Melling, the pageant coach, played by Michael Caine in one of his best comic roles. Gracie and Victor settle straight into the effete-butch screwball we get from Niles and CC in The Nanny, while his pageantry advice basically comes down to regulating (or attempting to regulate) Gracie’s food intake. He lures her out one night with the promise of a cookie, and always appears to be pulling a donut away from her mouth, until she pulls a gun on him to make it clear that this brand of confectionery is off-limits. His work ethic spreads to the other characters in the film too – Kathy Morningside, the pageant convenor (Candice Bergen) has to hold out her hand to collect Gracie’s gum, while FBI Agent Eric Matthews, Gracie’s partner and love interest (Benjamin Bratt) leans into their first kiss only to pull away and relish a Snickers bar that she can’t touch.
Yet the more that Victor tries to regulate Gracie’s intake of food, the more she enjoys it. Like every pageant entrant, she has to have a talent, but her talent – “playing” champagne glasses – is taken straight from the restaurant table where she first meets Victor. She has to drink some of the water to make sure the glasses are all in tune, meaning she’s the only contestant prepared to consume on stage. By her time the pageant comes around, she’s turned the restaurant into a spectacle, rather than a space that has to be disavowed in the pageant world, and the other contestants eventually help her out by drinking and tuning the glasses.
Of course, there’s always a possibility that a film like this can just devolve into an ugly and punitive punchdown on tomboys and butch women – and there are certainly traces of that here. As a whole, though, Gracie and Bullock hold their own. In part, that’s because Gracie’s rapport with Victor is animated by such a queer sense of performance – by their shared understanding that “femininity” is little more than a confected spectacle. The film also regularly pokes fun at the male gaze – Eric, the main love interest, is reduced to a himbo, while the pageant is taking place at the Alamo, meaning everyone is always imagining what John Wayne might have thought of it all. Wayne is so alien to this universe that he seems ridiculous by comparison, as does the staunch male gaze into the distance that he embodied.
At the same time, Miss Congeniality turns its parodic camp upon women who perpetuate the male gaze. It turns out that the terrorist in none other than Kathy Morningside, the anti-femnist, anti-ugly, anti-food convenor of the pageant. In Kathy’s hands, the very act of holding a pageant, and regulating Gracie’s appetite, becomes an act of terrorism, right down to planting the bomb in the tiara. This pageant-as-terrorism concept produces some great set pieces in the closing scenes of the film, where it starts to anticipate a more emergent camp – the camp of reality television, of watching high-end gatherings devolve in real time and space.
Above all, though, Miss Congenality never discards the pleasures of food and the importance of appetite. In one of the best scenes, Gracie convinces the other contestants to share beer and pizza, and the catharsis of indulging for the first time in days (for her) and years (for them) propels them into a flamboyant night club, where, covered in fluorescent paint, they continue to gorge themselves with pizza, although they’ve moved onto the next pizza by this stage. This night out also sharpens Gracie’s forensic instincts, prompting her to show up her male colleagues the very next day. It’s also worth noting that the film is packed with so much product placement for food – Starbucks, Snickers, Subway – that it’s basically an ad for eating.
All this leads to a perfectly poised ending, as Gracie gives a speech that’s partly for her benefit, and partly to lure Kathy into a false sense of security. In front of the crowd, she recalls that she used to think pageants were anti-feminist, but that she’s changed her mind now. That’s partly true, insofar as she’s developed a newfound admiration for her co-contestants. But she’s also mirroring Kathy’s own pageant-terrorist rhetoric, only conceding as much as she needs to in order to solve the crime. When it’s all done, she’s developed a new respect for women who are forced to stop eating, but that’s not going to stop her eating – and that appetite, so perfectly poised in Bullock’s delivery, makes for an even more flamboyant sequel.