For those of you that don’t know, Gracie Hart is the leading lady of the Miss Congeniality films. The two films cover the various exploits of Gracie Hart, a tomboy FBI agent who has to go undercover at a beauty pageant – not as a backstage person who could sneak around easily without being noticed, but as one of the very high-profile, constantly-filmed contestants. The first film was a massive success, becoming a box office hit and an established Saturday night classic very quickly – the second film was just, you know, there. Gracie herself is at the centre of both films, which are largely carried by Sandra Bullock’s charm and ability to snort while laughing.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Gracie is pretty firmly in control of her own destiny through most of her films. Whereas characters who work for important government agencies – such as Black Widow – often have to follow orders pretty rigorously, Gracie pretty much chucks this out the window. She does get sent on missions and told to obey her boss’s orders, but most of the time she makes her own decisions even if that means going against authority. This makes her a pretty terrible agent, but a very active character.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
As far as hobbies go, Gracie is a typical tomboy – someone who would rather wind down by taking out her frustrations on a punching bag than having a nice bubble bath. She believes that girls should be able to stand up for themselves, that appearance isn’t everything, and of course –
Her goals vary depending on which film she’s in. In the first movie, she wants to find a dangerous terrorist called The Citizen, and to protect the women at the Miss United States beauty pageant. In the second, she wants to save her kidnapped friend, Cheryl, and to be a role model for young girls. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Gracie is a reasonably consistent character. She’s tough, abrasive, sarcastic, has a poor attitude towards authority but basically means well and is very protective of her friends. She wobbles a bit in the second film, when she lets fame go to her head and becomes very shallow as a result, but she snaps out of this pretty quickly. As far as her skills go, those are consistent too – she’s good in hand-to-hand combat and with a range of different weapons. I’ll allow it.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A tough, tomboyish FBI agent has to go undercover at a beauty pageant to catch a killer – and ends up changing as a result of her experiences.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of Gracie’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life at all. What motivates her is the case she’s working on, whether she’s trying to catch a terrorist or find her kidnapped friend. She does have a love life in the first film, but for a stereotypical ‘chick flick’ it’s played down to an extreme, even though she does sing about it a bit.
It’s made very clear that Gracie is motivated by the job more than her boyfriend, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Gracie develops quite a bit over the course of both films. In the first film, she learns that femininity is nothing to be ashamed of, and learns to balance her tomboyish tendencies with her more feminine side, gaining a new appreciation of all things girly. In the second, her development isn’t quite so meaningful – she lets fame go to her head and becomes incredibly shallow, before coming down a peg or two to become a much more normal, balanced person.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Gracie’s biggest weakness is that she can’t take orders if she’s convinced she’s right, which is a pretty serious flaw for an FBI agent. It does have consequences for her – she frequently winds up butting heads with her various bosses, who demote her accordingly – but these never really stick. What usually happens is this:
- Gracie disobeys her boss because of a ‘hunch’ she had about a particular case. This usually ends badly, often in public embarrassment of some kind.
- Boss yells at Gracie, who insists she was in the right
- Boss tells Gracie that unless she does things his way, she’s off the force/demoted/sent somewhere where she can’t continue working on the case
- Gracie pursues her suspicions anyway, finds out she was right all along, and is welcomed back with open arms.
In real life, this would be a pretty serious flaw in a secret agent – security strategies are often very carefully crafted, and with so many lives at stake it’s vital that all the agents are working to the same plan. The typical ‘maverick agent’ that Hollywood loves so much would actually be a huge liability in a real-life security situation and Gracie Hart is no exception. It’s amazing that she lasts two whole films without being completely and irrevocably fired.
Gracie definitely does have weaknesses – aside from her lack of respect for authority, she also bottles up her feelings and can be a bit of a snob – but the consequences these have for her don’t really materialise. True, she gets told off once or twice, but that’s getting off lightly compared to what would happen in real life. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Gracie is a huge influence on the plot. She’s constantly chasing up leads, trying to get close to witnesses and informers, and doing her best to kick the bad guys where it really, really hurts. Her actions and decisions have a real impact on the plot and on her relationships, so I’m definitely giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
When it comes to gender stereotypes, the Miss Congeniality films are unusual in that they address them directly. Stereotypes about mannish female agents and airhead beauty queens are these films’ bread and butter – you literally couldn’t tell the story without them.
That makes the way the films present these stereotypes that much more interesting. In some ways it presents a very healthy view. Gracie starts off as a real tomboy who’s actually pretty mean to stereotypical girly girls, treating them with a certain amount of disdain. But when she actually gets to know them she finds that they’re more complex than she first thought, starts respecting them as people and gains a new appreciation of her own femininity as a result. That’s some pretty solid character growth that doesn’t undercut Gracie’s strength as a character, as well as being a very progressive view of gender stereotypes.
But in others, it’s not so great. It’s really the second film that lets Gracie down here. Following her success in the first film, she’s asked to be the public face of the FBI. Gracie lets this go to her head in the worst possible way, becoming a glammed-up, spoilt celebrity at the drop of a hat. This is reflected in her appearance – she starts dressing in a much more feminine way, spends much more time on her makeup, hair and nails and refuses to demonstrate fighting techniques when asked. In this respect, Miss Congeniality 2 undoes the work of the first film by linking Gracie’s more feminine appearance with shallow and silly behaviour, which really stings when you consider how much the first film tried to establish that all its beauty queens had their own distinct personalities. The film also draws on a lot of really tired old tropes – such as Gracie being able to shake off a couple of FBI agents by pretending to have her period – so it’s not exactly up to scratch. I’ll give her half a point, because the sequel really let her down.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Gracie has a bunch of relationships with other female characters. She makes friends with the other contestants – most notably Cheryl Frasier, who is the closest thing to a puppy in human form.
She doesn’t get on with the pageant’s director, Miss Morningside – which is just as well because she turns out to be a psychopath. She doesn’t get on with her bodyguard Sam in the second film, either, but the two eventually put aside their differences and become good friends. In short, Gracie has a huge range of relationships with other female characters, some of which develop quite a bit, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Gracie is a consistent character with a well-defined set of hobbies, goals and beliefs. She has clear development, is in control of her own destiny, isn’t completely ruled by her love life and has a wide range of relationships with other female characters. Does Miss Congeniality have its flaws? Certainly – but I still really enjoy the first film and Gracie has definitely passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite movies and its slightly worse sequel – The Mummy. Evie, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.