Though the traditional time to celebrate Miss Congeniality has become April 25, the film’s “perfect date,” December 22 marks twenty years since Sandra Bullock’s Gracie Hart first graced screens. The film made a strong $106 million back in 2000, so audiences were by no means cool to the raucous comedy about an FBI sting operation inside the Miss United States pageant. But there’s been a noticeable groundswell of affection for the film over time, thanks to a consistent presence on cable and the yearly meme-ification of its clever line.
Sure, perhaps it’s time for the recent wave of ‘90s reappreciation to spill over into the ‘00s. There’s more than nostalgia that powers the love for Miss Congeniality, although it is among few comedies from its cohort that avoids veering dangerously into uncomfortable and problematic territory. (At the box office, it fell consistently short of What Women Want, which … let’s not even go there.) This crowd-pleaser demonstrates staying power because it actively empowers and inspires, not simply because it does not offend. Its humor flows perfectly from the animating spirit of its star Sandra Bullock, a champion for the scrappy underdog and competent professional. Both she and the film understood the meaning of self-love long before it became a cultural buzzword, and they proclaim its power with authenticity.
No film better encapsulates Bullock’s star power than Miss Congeniality. She’s one of the few actresses of her generation who could go toe-to-toe with the greats of the screwball comedy era with both her frenetic physicality and deadpan line delivery. From Two Weeks Notice and The Heat to The Blind Side and Gravity, Bullock’s characters are tenacious fighters for what they believe or must accomplish, if not always great advocates for their own selves in the process.
As clumsy, cunning and cutting FBI agent Gracie Hart, Bullock gets to showcase the vast repertoire of her talents, in particular drawing laughs without making herself the punchline. There’s self-deprecation, sure, but the comedy in Miss Congeniality comes through identification with the misfit in all of us that has to fight for acceptance within systems that prioritize submission rather than self-expression. Gracie embodies the film’s moral compass: all people are more than meet the eye and deserve to be seen and recognized in the fullness of their humanity.
When Miss Congeniality picks up with its protagonist, Gracie has developed the requisite toughness to survive in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. However, she’s relegated to a desk job after showing empathy while trying to save a choking mob boss during a raid and imperiling another agent. The pageant infiltration assignment presents Gracie’s path to redemption by smuggling the agency’s investigative might inside her feminine wiles to gain access to such a glitzy realm. It’s yet another opportunity for her to bulldoze through arbitrary divisions and stereotypes as she disarms her fellow contestants by treating them as more than just vapid vessels to model swimsuits – and also disarms the menacing threat to Miss United States.
It’s fitting, then, that Miss Congeniality is as unclassifiable as Bullock herself. The film dips its toe in a number of subgenres – the makeover movie, the “working woman” movie, the romantic comedy. It never fully embraces any one element, yet manages to subvert expectations of them all.
Yes, the frizzy and frumpy Gracie undergoes a physical transformation so she can credibly go undercover as a beauty pageant contestant. But unlike similar films from the era like The Princess Diaries or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gracie hewing closer to societal beauty standards does not “unlock” some hidden potential deep inside. The makeover is more about exposing the difficulty others face in reconciling the possibility that someone could be both objectified for their beauty and appreciated for their brains. Gracie’s makeover is but a means to the ends of projecting the confidence she has in her own abilities out to the world.
To that end, the plot device perfectly complements Miss Congeniality’s larger thematic anxiety and tension over work-related matters, a consistent through-line in Bullock’s filmography. Similarly to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, released the next year, Gracie’s biggest triumph is the unapologetic achievement of her professional goal by leaning on unconventional skills and knowledge she already possessed before entering a dauntingly unfamiliar space. Gracie might be guaranteed a finish in the pageant’s top ten thanks to the Bureau’s rigging, but she continues to excel beyond even her own expectations by virtue of both the tenacity she’s accumulated over the years and her ability to create meaningful relationships with colleagues and competitors. The film’s climax marks a clear vindication of both Gracie’s instincts and sensibilities as it celebrates her ability to intuit the pageant’s dangerous disruptor while also charming the judges.
Best of all, Miss Congeniality does not fall into the trap of positing a false choice between professional attainment and personal satisfaction for women. Gracie’s story rejects the notion that finding balance in one area requires sacrifice or deficiency in the other. Gracie’s proficiency does not pose a stumbling block to fulfillment; it’s the key to unlocking it. She has a budding romance with fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), but the film treats it as incidental and a bonus. Their connection is but a subplot paralleling Gracie’s journey of loving the entirety of herself.
Genre films provide comfort to audiences because, at their core, they integrate individuals outside of society – usually by resolving tensions in favor of a group’s established values. Two decades later, Miss Congeniality still feels fresh because it resists capitulating to these forces. Gracie must change, but the people around her must change, too. This comedy is more concerned about reconciling with one’s self to find gratification than it is about reconciling with society. Gracie’s victory fulfills the true promise of self-love that had only just begun to percolate in culture by demonstrating that someone can thrive because of their unique and eccentric qualities, not in spite of them.