PASADENA, 24 August 2007 — At the Miss Teen USA Pageant held here tonight, finalist Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss Teen South Carolina, gave what Wikipedia called a “rambling and unstructured response” to an impromptu question. Her response was sufficiently “unstructured” that YouTube clips of it received 54 million views and the World Stupidity Awards gave her the 2007 award for “Stupidest Statement of the Year.” (note that by 2012 Upton will still be pursuing her career, and the WSA’s will have been out of business for 5 years)
As the title of her award suggests, in theory, the 54 million views of her video were for the purpose of laughing at how stupid this young person, barely beginning her life, was. I’ve never seen it that way. I don’t think that video is about Caitlin Upton at all. I think it is about us.
There is much to be said about “beauty pageants,” but for the purpose of this discussion, lets simply stipulate that they exist. They are, for the time being at least, a part of our culture. In cultivating poise, grace, beauty, and elegance, teenager Caitlin Upton was doing what we, the larger culture, asked her to do. We didn’t really ask her to join the debate team. We never suggested that it mattered or that we valued those skills. And then in 30 seconds when this young person who had worked hard to achieve that which we had told her mattered, turned out to be less than perfect at that which we had told her didn’t really matter… she became an internet meme.
When Yahoo Search alerted Yahoo Research that “Miss Teen USA” was a massively trending topic, they created a “Reverse IP Lookup Map,” the globe you see above. The beams of light are the number of search queries for “Miss Teen USA,” as you see it’s pretty quiet in Europe, dark over the breadth of the Atlantic, and then as you approach America’s Eastern seaboard, an explosion of search requests. That explosion of light isn’t a reflection of Caitlin Upton’s IQ… uh… I think it’s a reflection of ours.
Caitlin Upton did the job we asked of her.
She developed that which, with our media and our money, we told her mattered.
She was less aware of that which we never told her we cared about.
Meanwhile we, with out culture of banality, are so starved for entertainment, for the next meme to digest, that we can turn a 30 second flub into an entire meal. Did we really sit on our couches and critique her? When someone rich or powerful or beautiful falls off the pedestal we temporarily awarded them, it’s not only entertaining to watch the fall, it is a validation of our own lives, such as they are.
Caitlin Upton became that which our culture told her it valued, and we laughed at her for it.
Caitlin Upton did her job.