The Roman poet Lucretius famously wrote, ‘Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem.’ In English, that’s ‘It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds.’
What do we call that feeling today? Schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. People often show signs of schadenfreude, of course, but these days, we seem to have pretty pronounced tendencies when it comes to who we get all schadenfreudey about.
Case in point? Marissa Powell. Or, as she’s better known in 8 billion social media mentions over the past 24 hours, the Miss USA Pageant’s Miss Utah. In case you’ve been out of digital device coverage, the story goes like this: beauty pageants have a part in which contestants get asked questions, which they then answer more-or-less extemporaneously. Ms. Powell was asked the following question:
“A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”
Her answer was rocky, rambling and perhaps not even entirely coherent. She used poor grammar. She didn’t really make a point and her answer wasn’t really responsive to the question. [Because it was broadcast worldwide, you can find complete video documentation without much effort; I won’t post the video here.]
Ms. Powell was pretty well skewered for her (admittedly) lame response in newspapers, online media, social media, and on television. Made to look like an empty-headed fool. Criticized for everything from her model-good looks to her state of origin.
Okay, haha, I get it. She’s pretty and she said something dumb in public. Schedenfreude, right? But before we get feeling all superior to Ms. Powell and delighted in her very public and mean-spirited humiliation, let me make a couple of points here.
First, responding extemporaneously to unanticipated questions is inherently difficult. Not many people do it well, even under the best of circumstances. Doing so in front of a substantially-sized audience is even more difficult. Now add lots of bright and hot lights, uncomfortable hair, makeup and wardrobe, TV cameras instantaneously beaming your every utterance worldwide, and the factor of wanting to succeed at a competition. Now, imagine yourself in the same situation. Think you’d fare much better?
I’ve seen a lot of people answer tough questions in public – done it myself more than a time or two – and I’d encourage you to think again.
Second is the (not) little matter of gender. Women who commit verbal gaffes in public, as it turns out, fare considerably less well than their male counterparts. Compare the reaction Ms. Powell received to the treatment received by some men in similar situations, like, for example, athletes being interviewed. Stupid, trite, cliche, unintelligible, inane. Too many instances to count. Do they get critiqued? Sure. Humiliated? Not to the extent Ms. Powell endured, and not very often.
I appreciate verbal communication as much as anyone, and I wouldn’t look for genius at the Miss USA Pageant but I’d encourage a little care before we try to make a complete buffoon of one of its contestants.
I believe there are some dark influences behind this whole schadenfreude thing we got going.