Little Miss Sunshine and Images of California

California, which has been aptly nicknamed “The Golden State,” (California State Library – History and Culture, 2006) conjures up images of sunshiny, warm weather, beaches and sexy blonde girls, palm trees, earthquakes and technology start-ups. These aside from the attraction of the ultimate Hollywood Dream that captivates anyone and everyone seeking the lure of the klieg lights and the celebrity status fantasy.

Historically, the state itself has been no stranger to controversies that molded it into a chaotic mix of different races with opposing ideologies of cynicism and hope. From its violent separation from Mexico to the discovery of gold by James Marshall in 1848 that led to the ensuing gold rush to the various scandals that hit the major movie studios, indeed, California was the place for the desperate dreamer in search of greener pastures. (California State Library – History and Culture, 2006) “Little Miss Sunshine” would thus have found no better setting other than California.

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This dark comedy of a dysfunctional family’s road trip to the state for a beauty pageant for children is all about hitting it big or achieving the great American dream – whether it be becoming a successful motivational speaker and book author, a great literary scholar rebounding a lost gay love, a contented and less stressed mother, an old man who aspires to do youthful activities, an angst-filled colorblind teenager who imagines becoming an Air Force Pilot and finally, a little girl who dreams of winning the pageant through her vivacity, innocence and extraordinary talent.

The beauty pageant angle thus fits nicely into the California Dream, a dream shared by people of different colors and creeds. One can observe that the pageant participants were a virtual melting pot of Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, etc. Notably, the reigning titleholder for Miss California was of Asian-American origin. This just exemplifies the fact that California has for so long been a migrant-friendly region as can be seen from its long history, from being a Spanish colonial province and a territory of Mexico, to the Gold rush of the 1940s and the Dust Bowl refugee migration during the Depression.

However, one can say that in this present modern age of tolerance, California still encounters testy waters in terms of racial relations as can be seen from the Rodney King incident and the consequent riots of Los Angeles in 1991. “Little Miss Sunshine” in itself did not depict any significant racial conflict. It actually provided an interesting display of racial harmony amidst a competition-filled atmosphere.

The movie also touched upon another stereotype – that of California being more liberal as compared to other more conservative states. Such a perception could have been enhanced by the free flow of ideas and the openness of state residents to innovation and change. Obvious manifestations would be the fact that Silicon Valley is the world’s incubator for advancements in science and technology.

Or that the Hollywood machinery continues to churn out movies and shows that constantly provoke existing convention, generate tons of publicity and rake in millions. The liberal activity of child beauty pageants might have been objectionable if conducted in a different place and time. Children given the free hand to strut their stuff and act like adults, and in the process, lose whatever sweet innocence they still have for a title that may or may not lead to something fruitful.

There are still raging debates as to whether these child pageants are exploitative or actually benefit the child participants in terms of gaining self-confidence and winning a whole lot of prize money, especially after the Jon Benet Ramsey controversy. (Gleick, 2001) Undoubtedly, the freethinking environment that California is known for thus provided the perfect backdrop for the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. But pushing convention does have its limits as can be glimpsed from the surprised and disgusted looks of the audience as Olive performed her burlesque striptease act.

Inspite of the jeers, she nonetheless achieved her little dream of feeling like a winner, of performing something which her grandfather painstakingly taught her. California will always be viewed in the pages of history as the new frontier for achieving the great American dream, in whatever form it may be. As poignantly put in one movie review, “A couple days later, after an eventful 700-mile journey with her family in a vintage VW van from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, the girl’s dream at last appears within reach.

They approach the Ramada Inn where the pageant is being held, they can see the building from the freeway — it looks close enough to touch, but they can’t find the exit that will actually get them there. That moment has a lot to say, not only about the illusive, ever-shifting concrete landscape of Southern California, where you always seem to be moving down some predefined course but never quite arriving — and about the elusive nature of those American Dreams we all chase, the detours we follow — and the roads we don’t. ” (Jim Emerson, 2006)