Grace Hart is our hero.
She’s an eternal screw-up who perseveres to prove everyone wrong.
More importantly: she successfully traverses the masculine and feminine spaces of the F.B.I and the Miss United States Pageant.
The Masculine Space
In the F.B.I., Grace undergoes more opposition than most. Her male colleagues find opportunities to use her for ideas and Starbucks runs and after a fatal mistake injures a fellow officer, Grace finds herself under the radar of her disapproving (male) boss. In fact, her boss goes on to jump all over her mistakes – perceived and tangible – for the rest of the film. So fixated on her initial mistake, he misses the truth of her suspicion that the host of Miss United States, Cathy Morningside, is “The Citizen”. He absolutely refuses to acknowledge her hunch both because she messed up in the beginning and because she extracted this information from a night out with the other girls, the latter to which he refers to as a “pyjama party”. Yeesh. I could rant about how the FBI encouraged her to mingle with the ladies to extract information, but I think you can glean my sentiments.
Admittedly, in the beginning, Grace’s methodology leaned heavily towards beating answers out of people. But by this point in the film, she’s understood that she can, in fact, gently “Girl Talk” her way into finding the suspect. The tomboy introvert overcomes her social handicap and solicits valuable information to prevent innocent people from getting killed. Character progression!
But I digress.
Grace’s the best person to lead the team, but Eric is selected instead (again, we go back to that mistake at the beginning of the film). While he assembles those who pamper him (‘Who’s buying me lunch?’) and meanders through the strategy meeting, it’s Grace who provides the answers. Yet, Eric and his team claim these ideas as his.
Her dedication to put herself under immense scrutiny within the pageant world that makes her uncomfortable deserves adulation. She’s not trained to perform on stage in any capacity so for her to learn pageanting (learning how to be convincing enough as a contestant) within three days is astounding. Yes, she screws up a couple of times but the other more seasoned contestants screw up too in some way.
No woman is 100% perfect. Society shouldn’t demand perfection from women and condemn them for anything less. Especially in the workplace where their male counterparts (I’m lookin’ at you, Eric Bob) can get away with incompetence.
Grace’s efforts to push past her mistakes and right wrongs in the name of justice prove sometimes you have to mess up to reach the conclusion.
The Feminine Space
The discomfort is real. Grace is a clownfish in a sea of piranhas; she is uncomfortable and we’re uncomfortable for her as we watch her enter alien waters. As a last-minute addition, Grace is set back even further since the ladies have already formed their cliques. Add her difficulty to relate to the other girls and to stand upright in heels, and Grace sets herself apart for the wrong reasons.
Throw in the fact that the allegiances in these cliques shift, and the ladies turn on each other over minor slights. While they don’t leap at each other and rip each other’s hair while wrestling, it does make the atmosphere more competitive than already is. Grace is used to tension in a masculine environment. There’s no doubt that this competitive feminine sphere is challenging for her. This is the most obvious when her pageant consultant is forced to leave and she struggles to identify lipstick among her makeup collection. Luckily the other women step in to help her. Women support women in the end.
As much as these scenes bring comedy to the otherwise seriousness of the plot, those like Grace can relate to feeling out of place in their gendered spaces. Conforming to gender conventions when your goals and traits both encompass and surpass them is tricky to navigate. Worst still, if you come into contact with supporters of rigid gender rules, you can feel their rigidity restricting and punishing. Quite a few people have issues with tomboys and express their dislike/disgust that a woman harbours masculine traits. This has a knock-on effect on her desirability. Grace inhabits hard-work, perseverance and intelligence, but because she’s not “feminine enough”, she’s denied respect, open ears and loving relationships.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Grace aces some of the pageant rehearsal warmups due to her athleticism but struggles to learn the performance dance moves that all contestants must partake in. OK, Grace isn’t so [G]raceful. We can’t all be graceful 24/7 – unless you’re a figure-skater. She also manages to please the crowd during the swimsuit and preliminary interviews without falling on her face. [That comes later during the final, but let’s pretend it doesn’t.] She also gives varied and thoughtful answers during both interviews with Stan.
What’s the most heart-warming outcome of this tricky experience is that, among these alpha women, she discovers the softest and purist friendship with Cheryl. She’s the only one to acknowledge Grace and welcome her into the pageant world. Instead of viewing each other as competition, they share their worries and their hopes. More importantly: they support each other. Grace gently nudges Cheryl’s flaming batons performance which arguably wins her the crown above anything else.
While Grace was on the receiving end of jabs about her lack of femininity, she isn’t exempt from doling out the judgement towards pageantry and feminine women in general. She gives Eric’s date a less than flattering character profile before getting to know her. Grace also expresses her belief that pageants are anti-feminist. The film encourages audiences to examine the flip-side; attitudes towards women who pursue beauty pageants as a career path. Women can inflict rigid gender expectations towards each other.