Best Damn Tapper, Most Smartest

New Line Cinema

For reasons that are unclear to me now, my friends and I spent most of our teenage years watching the same dozen or so movies over and over again. Some were standard mid-‘00s PG-13 comedies. School of Rock and Bring It On were reliable crowd-pleasers. We watched Zoolander every weekend for months in junior year, stopping only while my best friend perfected her impression of the “jitterbug” part of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” But our other favorites were, for lack of a more elegant descriptor, weird as fuck. We loved Riding in Cars with Boys and Drop Dead Gorgeous because we were, I guess, subconsciously drawn to Brittany Murphy movies in which pregnant people chain-smoke. In middle school, we put on The Bad Seed and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle whenever our easily-frightened friends—and, I have to assume, our parents—were absent.

On the whole, these movies had nothing in common but our obsessive, unexplainable love for them. But there’s a clear through-line running across all of them now: They haven’t aged well. Watching them as an adult, I cringe at the narrative cracks, at premises that once seemed realistic but now feel totally absurd. Their jokes don’t quite land anymore, either because we wore them out through repetition or because they’re too bound to the time and place they were created. But even the ones whose quality holds up don’t feel right. They came into my life as a collectively loved object in a particular time and place, and my love for them is inseparable from that; watching them now as an adult, in a different context, just feels off.  

I thought our favorite movie, Drop Dead Gorgeous, was an exception to this. The 1999 dark comedy/mockumentary about a local American Teen Princess Pageant in small-town Minnesota was our primary cultural touchstone. It was neither a critical nor commercial success, and I don’t remember what first inspired us to watch it and enter into the fold of its cult following. But we watched it hundreds of times, until the rhythm of its dialogue seeped into our speech and its dark humor became indistinguishable from our own. No other cultural product came close to the sway this one had over us. (Although, in fairness to Riding in Cars with Boys, the moment in which Lorraine Bracco advises young girls to bite off boys’ tongues was a formative influence on my personality.) It was so central to our collective identity that we used it to test new friends: if they did not laugh enough or at the right parts, they would not be able to hang. To this day, when I meet someone else who loves it, I know we’ll get along.

But my confidence in its longevity was mostly unfounded. I didn’t watch it for almost a decade after high school. Part of this was emotional. I moved across the country and saw my childhood friends once or twice a year; watching our movie alone—or worse, with people who didn’t love it correctly—would put me at risk of homesickness. But most of it was logistical. No streaming service or cable channel featured the movie, and we had only one DVD copy between us, which was not in my custody. I tried to buy another, but capitalism is a broken system that makes acquiring an unjustly overlooked late-‘90s masterpiece all but impossible. DVDs were intermittently available online, but the supply was scarce, the price both inflated and unstable.

A few months ago, I skimmed a wishlist for something that would get my sunscreen order to the free shipping minimum, and there it was: in stock, $10. Five to eight business days later, after years of effort, Drop Dead Gorgeous was in my DVD player. I expected a fun throwback with dialogue I knew by heart and performances from actors whose careers look wildly different today. Because we chopped the movie apart for spare dialogue parts, I remembered it as more of a list of jokes than a story with plot and stakes and character development. But it is, it turns out, an actual piece of narrative cinema—and a far less palatable one than I remembered.

To be clear, I should have expected discomfort; there are slasher films less violent than Drop Dead Gorgeous. The movie follows Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a hardworking teenage girl who enters a local beauty pageant to follow in the footsteps of her mother and Diane Sawyer. Amber threatens the previously guaranteed victory of rich, gun-loving evangelical Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), who, aided by her mother, pageant organizer Gladys (Kirstie Alley), picks off her competition through murder, bodily harm, and psychological torment. Amber escapes death but comes in second place—until Becky dies in a victory-parade float fire, thus sending Amber on to the state pageant. She wins that competition simply because she’s the only competitor who doesn’t eat some buffet shellfish that causes food poisoning. As the newly-crowned Minnesota American Teen Princess, she arrives at the national pageant only to discover that it’s canceled because its sponsor went bankrupt and no one remembered to tell the contestants.

It goes without saying that there were several moments at which I wondered what was wrong with our teenage selves that made us love this dark dark comedy so unreservedly. With a decade of distance, I was especially horrified by how often the movie uses disability as a punchline, and cringed my way through its many jokes about amputees, the Deaf, and the developmentally disabled—the kind of jokes that amount to little more than Isn’t disability weird to look at, and aren’t we edgy for pointing this out? I could try to absolve myself by saying I was able to love the movie so wholeheartedly because I forgot this, its worst habit, but the fact that it did not register as gross enough to stick in my brain is a problem in itself.

It’s particularly disappointing because I was otherwise stunned by how incisive the movie is about people and places American popular culture often treats as disposable. It accurately depicts the quirks of an insular community where economic hardship, open secrets, and long interpersonal rivalries stifle the young. And it cultivates a particular regional culture; the terrible accents and widespread alcoholism and enthusiasm for hunting are distinctively Upper Midwestern. I think much of our teenage affection for the movie came from seeing a place like our own Wisconsin community on screen.

Even with my temporal and geographic distance now, I was still delighted by how accurately it depicts a place where everyone knows everyone and there’s not much to do but drink heavily. But the movie also frames this hyper-specific small town as inherently American and depicts the pageant as an exercise in nationalized competitive individualism. The competition opens with participants introducing themselves wearing hats featuring the landmarks that make them each “proud to be an American” (the program’s theme; past themes include “Buy American,” “USA’s A-OK,” and “Amer-I-Can”), followed by a group dance routine in which everyone is clad in red, white, and blue.

These jokes are funny, but they also remind you that the central conflict of Drop Dead Gorgeous is not a matter of teenage girlhood but of the United States; this pageant is not a catfight but a class war. I doubt I explicitly understood this as a teenager, but it feels real and prescient now. The movie depicts Becky as an ice cold sociopath, but suggests that being raised in wealth by greedy, selfish people made it impossible for her to be any other way. Her mother is a conniving murderer; her father, a shady furniture salesman who sexually harasses his assistant, and parents by throwing money at Becky. The Leemans’ wealth is clearly depicted as the reason why they treat others as disposable roadblocks on their way to acquiring more—and why they get away with doing this for so long. Becky wins because she and her family manipulate the whole outcome, but that’s what makes her a true American teen princess: Selfish and cutthroat, her evil hidden behind patriotism and evangelical Christianity and a wealthy, white nuclear family.

Even if they were not killing and maiming people, the Leemans’ lifestyle would still be villainous. Mount Rose is crumbling, populated by almost exclusively white families struggling to make ends meet. Where Becky just wants to win for the sake of her ego, the other girls compete because the prize—paltry scholarships to their local technical college, with the chance to win more money if they advance to state—would help them pursue otherwise unattainable future goals. As Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy) explains, “If you’re 17 and you’re not a total fry, it’s just what you do.” But these girls don’t just enter the pageant just because they want an unlikely future of financial security, they enter because their girlhood further limits the paths that might get them there. “Guys get out of Mount Rose all the time on hockey scholarships,” Amber tells the documentary crew early in the movie, pausing thoughtfully before adding: “Or prison.”

Amber understands the precarity of being a working-class, rural girl better than any other character. She lives in a trailer park, has an after-school job as a mortuary cosmetologist, and is raised by a single mom (Ellen Barkin) whose best friend and neighbor Loretta (Allison Janney) lends a hand as an informal co-parent. Amber wants to move on from Mount Rose to realize her dreams of becoming a journalist, but she also knows she could not get anywhere without the support system she has there. Her mom is unfailingly supportive, but when she’s hospitalized after a Leeman-created explosion, Loretta steps in as a drunk but competent guardian, accompanying Amber to all her events from that point forward. At the local pageant, Amber is nearly disqualified after her talent outfit goes conspicuously missing and the organizers refuse to approve a new costume—but Lisa intervenes, giving Amber her talent costume at the expense of her own chance to compete. Where the Leemans dispose of everyone who stands in their way of their goals, Amber knows she cannot achieve anything alone.

Yet Amber’s success is circumscribed by random chance more than her own hard work or others’ generosity. Most stories about characters transcending tough upbringings shore up the myth of the meritocracy but Drop Dead Gorgeous pokes infinite holes in it. Both Amber’s pageant wins are flukes: Becky’s death is a freak accident; the state pageant food poisoning is equally random. Amber is exempt from it only because she remembers her mother’s sage advice: “Don’t ever eat nothin’ that can carry its house around with it. Who knows the last time it’s been cleaned.” She feels guilty about not really earning her victories, and Loretta tries to reassure her: “You’re a good person. Good things happen to good people.” But when Amber asks if that’s true, Loretta can only be honest, telling her, “No. It’s pure bullshit, sweetie. You’re lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.” (Side note: Allison Janney should have won an Oscar for this performance, and if she had, it would have saved us from having to watch Angelina Jolie kiss her brother. Further proof that we don’t live in a meritocracy, I guess.) And, fittingly, failure is just as random as success. Amber’s luck runs out at the end of her pageant career, her chance to compete at the national level stripped away by a corporate system in which she has no agency whatsoever.

This is obviously not a realistic story, but it takes place within a world that works the same way ours does: controlled by a powerful, venal few while the rest of us struggle for whatever’s left over, occasionally banding together or stumbling into some random luck. It’s a dramatic departure from most movies made for and about teenage girls in the ‘90s and ‘00s, an onslaught of postfeminist girl-power, you-can-do-anything narratives that shored up the myth of meritocracy.

I doubt we explicitly recognized this as teenagers, but at the very least, it’s telling that we didn’t see any reason to question the world it depicted, that it resonated with us so much more fully than the other teenage girlhoods we saw on screen. I understand the movie differently at age 28 than I did at 18, and I’m ashamed to realize there are parts of it I hate now and should have hated then. But our past obsession and my current appreciation-with-asterisks can’t be easily separated. I don’t know if I would have grown up to become an adult capable of appreciating Drop Dead Gorgeous’s strengths and cringing at its weaknesses if I hadn’t first been a teenager who loved it with the unapologetic intensity that only comes with seeing something that feels real and true and personal on screen for the first time.