When Miss USA, Kára McCullough, was so quick to dismiss and remove herself from feminism, it worked as both anti-feminist rhetoric and a showcase of her privilege.
People were glued to their televisions over the weekend as the Miss USA 2017 Pageant aired. When Miss D.C., Kára McCullough, won the crown, very few were shocked: all night, McCullough wowed the crowd with her beauty, grace and ambition.Sadly, that pride for the newly crowned Miss USA turned to criticism as some of her answers from the night (as well as ill-timed social media posts) brought up some very important questions about responsibility as a public figure and women who denounce feminism while upholding it through their actions.
During the question-and-answer portion, many were shocked at McCullough at her response to the question of her thoughts on the country’s stance on healthcare (“Do you think affordable healthcare for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege, and why?”). She said, “I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege. As a government employee, I’m granted healthcare. And I see first-hand that for one to have health care, you need to have jobs, so therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment [so] that we’re given the opportunity to have healthcare as well as jobs [for] all the American citizens worldwide.”
Yep, you read that right: it looks like our new Miss USA thinks healthcare is a privilege.
Traditionally, the question-and-answer portion of the pageant has been the most cringeworthy part to watch. Even worse than her remarks on healthcare, McCullough’s views on feminism really got people responding strongly.
Asked whether or not she considered herself a feminist, McCullough said:
“I try not to consider myself this die-hard, ‘I don’t care about men’ (type). Women, we are just as equal as men when it comes to opportunity in the workplace. First-hand, I’ve witnessed the impact women have in leadership in the medical sciences as well as in office environments.”
She also remarked that she preferred the term “equalist” to feminist. Twitter was not having it.
miss USA thinks affordable healthcare for all US citizens is a privilege….. it's the privilege talking
— Shiva Moz (@sheeeeevs) May 17, 2017
— J9MT (@DCJerseyGirl) May 16, 2017
she also said feminism was a negative term and she believes instead in "equalism" but lmao yeah woo another POC Miss USA.. https://t.co/VXMZjofB7s
— grandbaby willow ? (@localgrandma) May 16, 2017
— Connor Alexander (@ConnorAlexander) May 16, 2017
McCullough later walked back some of her comments, saying she believes healthcare is a right, and that she supports women’s rights. But by then, the damage had been done.
As a private person, McCullough is free to identify however she likes. But as a public figure, her words ring stronger and sharper than they would have, had she been just another person in a public space. Her remarks, whether intentionally thought out in order to seem as non-divisive as possible, come across as dismissive and uninformed. This also shines a light onto a bigger issue of public figures and the responsibility they have to engage responsibly within social justice and identity — if they chose to engage with them at all.
People are free to self-identify however they choose. However, none of us are above the weight of our choices. Every label that we choose to identify with or not (or have prescribed to us without our consent) all work to create the presentation of who we are to the outside world.
The harm with McCullough being so quick to dismiss and remove herself from feminism works both as anti-feminist rhetoric and a showcase of her privilege. For all intents and purposes, McCullough is a feminist because she is a person who believes in justice for people of all genders, and believes that a person can accomplish anything they choose if they put their mind to it, not because they identify with a certain gender specifically. Her work in the STEM fields and her advocacy for them is worth celebrating, of course, and her accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at. So then, why is the woman who has been crowned the newest Miss USA fighting so hard against this particular label?
It’s especially concerning that a Black woman, a woman of color, is advocating for this misleading labeling with respect to feminism and healthcare. Systematically, feminism has been a core value within the lives of Black women without them having to specifically use that term. In fact, the creation of so much work that Black women have created have stemmed from the need to separate themselves from mainstream feminism, which has historically (and in many ways, contemporarily) left their voices and concerns out in the cold. However, that’s not what McCullough is doing; by embracing separatist language that thrives on misinformation about feminism, McCullough is actually doing more harm than good.
Public figures are given a lot of leeway for being unclear or misdirecting in their responses on social justice issues, but without holding them accountable to speak correctly and be fully informed on these topics, they can actually cause harm. I hope that with the strong responses about Miss USA, we can begin to have more nuanced call-ins about public figures and the responsibility they have to be informed and empathetic public speakers.