In Miss USA drama, comeuppance for US 'raunch culture'

The story reflects a clash between the pageant's wholesome image and a US society that glamorizes bad behavior.

If Tara Conner had taken her own advice, she may not have found herself in the full glare of media cameras Tuesday, crying as she owned up to some bad behavior.

During the pageant in April, the aspiring Miss USA was asked if "pop superstars" were positive role models for young people. "I think they're a little bit too risqué," she told the judges. "I think they need to tone it down."

That answer may have helped Ms. Conner win her crown as Miss USA 2006. But subsequent reports of the Kentucky girl's hard partying with other celebrities on the New York club scene almost cost her that prized tiara.

Her story is surely a cautionary tale about a small-town girl suddenly hitting the big city. But it also reflects a clash between the wholesome image of the Miss USA pageant and what author Ariel Levy calls "raunch culture," in which the "values and aesthetics of a red-light district" seep into the mainstream.

From Paris Hilton's rise to fame through a sexually explicit video traded on the Internet to spring-break antics verging on soft-core pornography and movies that celebrate binge-drinking bashes, today's commercial culture glamorizes bad behavior.

That sets up a contradiction that is both confusing and dangerous to young people, particularly women, say psychologists and others. It's responsible, in part, for the rise among young women of drinking, prescription- and illegal drug abuse, and eating disorders such as anorexia, they say.

As a condition of retaining her crown, Conner said she will enter a rehab program for substance abusers.

Why girls gravitate to 'raunchy'

"The term I use is 'slut chic,' " says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School near Boston. "The sad thing about hearing about Miss USA is that she had a title with real power, and what happened to her happens to many girls and women growing up today. They get this message that, despite everything else that's wonderful and uniquely 'you,' power ... is still defined by raunchy behavior that's disrespectful to yourself. And it's a false sense of power."

The pageant's decision to give Conner a second chance to live up to her own admonishments may well be a recognition of the difficulties this generation of young women face in a culture awash in aggressive sexuality, self-indulgence, and bad-girl glam.

Conner's reign as Miss USA started almost like a fairy tale. She's a self-described tomboy who likes to sky-dive, "play basketball with my dad, and ride go-carts with my brothers." Soon after taking the crown as Miss USA, the 5-foot, 5-inch blonde beauty came in fourth in the Miss Universe contest. Then the talk began about her late-night escapades. Only 20 at the time, she was reported to have been seen drinking with other young celebrities in Manhattan bars. There were allegations of drug use and of being what used to be called, in politer days of yore, "loose." She also began missing scheduled appearances.

That prompted the Miss Universe organization, which sponsors the Miss USA pageant and is co-owned by NBC and magnate Donald Trump, to question whether she was worthy of the crown – and to force a day of reckoning. The stated goal of the Miss Universe organi- zation is to empower strong, healthy women.

At Tuesday's press conference, Mr. Trump said he expected to "fire" Conner before he met with her that morning. In 2002, he did strip the reigning Miss Universe, Oxana Fedorova of Russia, of her title for unbecoming behavior.

But he said he believes in "second chances," and that he found Conner to be remorseful and willing to go into rehabilitation. "She left a small town in Kentucky, and she was telling me that she got caught up in the whirlwind of New York," Trump said. "It's a story that has happened many times before to many women and many men who came to the Big Apple. They wanted their slice of the Big Apple, and they found out it wasn't so easy."

He also said he believed she could be a "great example for troubled people."

A back-from-the-brink role model?

Such a role model is needed, some experts say, in part because of the messages being sent to young people by today's commercial culture. Those messages, they say, can exude a harsh sexuality that is often devoid of substantive human emotion.

"We have unprecedented sexuality on TV, and it's not nice, it's not loving, and it's not healthy," says Dr. Steiner-Adair. "There's a lot of disconnected sex between people who barely know each other, and often it has a demeaning, mean-spirited, and violent edge to it."

In her book "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," Ariel Levy says she was first struck by the change in the comfort of her own home when she turned on the TV. "Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me I felt like we used to go out," she writes in the introduction.

When young women get caught acting out in inappropriate ways, as Conner did, they are in fact reflecting the culture, Ms. Levy said Tuesday in a phone interview. "We tend to vilify individuals and act like they're the cause of this when, in fact, they're a symptom," says Levy.

In a way, says Steiner-Adair, what's happened to the culture is a perversion of the original feminist movement and the so-called sexual revolution.

"The original message of the so-called sexual revolution was to end sexism and to not make women prisoners to cultural norms, the virgin and a whore: You were a good girl or you were a bad girl," says Steiner. "The idea was to allow women to grow into their own bodies at their own pace and in their own time. The message to teenagers then was be yourself, be real, be you. To me that was healthy."

It's a message Conner says she wants to send in being the "best Miss USA" possible. "[The goal of the organization] is to empower women and make them the best they can be," she said Tuesday. "I plan on working as hard as I can."

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