This week the Miss California USA pageant has been getting a little extra publicity thanks to Jenelle Hutcherson, 26, of Long Beach, and Mollie Thomas, 19, of West Hollywood, the first openly gay contestants in the 60 years of the pageant.
The Daily Mail reports that pageant organizers recruited Thomas and Hutcherson to join the ranks of over 400 contestants in order to encourage individuality. In a statement, co-executive of Miss California USA Keith Lewis urged contestants to "push the envelope even further."
Thomas and Hutcherson seem up to that challenge. On her own Facebook, Thomas wrote, "I am taking this opportunity not only to fulfill some of my own aspirations, but also to be a positive role model and inspiration for the LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning] community and for girls everywhere."
Hutcherson spoke in a similar vein. She told the Los Angeles Times before the competition: "We have the power to create a better future for our kids by setting an example of treating each other with love and equality." Hutcherson also competed in the Miss Long Beach pageant, wearing menswear throughout the formal and bathing suit competition.
And the media at large seems thrilled. I haven't found a single negative word from any major news outlet or gossip blog. Dozens of articles claimed these two women were "making history" with their outspoken presentation of their lifestyle, and that they are role models to younger girls.
Compare this treatment to what happened to former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. When guest judge Perez Hilton asked Prejean her stance on gay marriage, she dared to say she did not believe that gay marriage should be legalized.
Prejean's stance wasn't easy and it showed: She looked nervous and stumbled over her words. Later, she gave a caveat saying she was glad to live in a country where people had the right to believe and act how they wanted, but that she was raised to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
What followed was months of controversy and public lambasting of Prejean in every media outlet. She was called horrific names by Hilton and other popular gossip bloggers. She was asked by Matt Lauer and Larry King to change her answer or apologize. Eventually she was stripped of her crown when organizers said she had violated her contract. Even now, when I went to research stories about her, most were accompanied by an unflattering picture or bumbling quotation.
Now, I am not stating that anyone should be upset or surprised that an organization such as Miss USA wants to push the envelope. The glamorous and over-sexed cousin of Miss America has never exactly been a bastion of conservative values. But comparing the treatment received by Thomas and Hutchinson to what happened to Prejean just two years ago should make anyone pause. Is this really a step towards freedom of expression and equality, or simply a bow towards special interest groups made angry two years ago?
The Miss America pageant has always claimed to be about providing young women with opportunities to get their voices heard and become a source of inspiration to a younger generation. The exception, however, comes when the contestant's worldview doesn't match with the organization's.
The kind of pressure and anger the media placed on Prejean is unacceptable. Like many of the articles about Thomas and Hutcherson expressed, it takes courage to be who you are and state what you believe. But it seems the time has come when it takes more courage to be Carrie Prejean than Mollie Thomas.