When most people hear the word “pageant,” they might wrinkle their noses as they think of the crazed Honey Boo Boos of Toddlers & Tiaras or the beautiful-yet-vacant Miss Utahs of incoherent answers.
But a new documentary may just change all your preconceived notions about pageants.
Miss You Can Do It centers on the pageant of the same name, which is for girls with disabilities that range from spina bifida to Down syndrome. The pageant, spearheaded by former Miss Iowa Abbey Curran, will celebrate its 10th anniversary on July 27 and is the subject of an HBO documentary airing tonight.
In 2008, Curran became the first woman with a disability—cerebral palsy—to compete in the Miss USA pageant. The 25-year-old’s devotion to the pageant is infectious.
“As soon as I get a sponsor, I want this thing to be the next Miss USA pageant,” she said. “I want people to be tuning in to see the live pageant of Miss You Can Do It 2014, and I’d also like it in all different states.”
The idea first came about when Curran’s friend with severe cerebral palsy said her parents wouldn’t let her enter a pageant because they feared everyone would laugh at her. Curran rounded up her family and friends, and the Miss You Can Do It pageant was born.
Within the first few minutes of the film, it’s hard to see how anyone could deny these little girls the right to participate. The looks of glee and wonder on their cherubic faces will melt hearts.
“I was brought up my entire life taught you don’t look, you don’t stare, you don’t ask, you sort of pretend they’re not there,” director Ron Davis said. “This pageant blows every preconceived notion out of the water about what a pageant could and should be about. This one is about empowering these little girls, about celebrating what is right about them; it’s about celebrating their beauty on the inside.”
The film centers on a girls and their families from the Kewanee, Illinois, area, where the pageant is held. Tierney zips around in her motorized wheelchair chasing butterflies, even though she has spinal muscular atrophy, which will slowly deteriorate her muscles. Quadriplegic Daleney constantly breaks into a smile as wide as her face, even if she struggles to walk. Meg and her sister Alina, who both have Down syndrome, play together on a jungle gym. Alina was adopted from an orphanage in Ukraine as a companion for Meg.
“We definitely had the response of ‘Are you crazy?’ … And we still get people saying, ‘I don’t know how you do it, you guys are saints,’ and we’re not,” Meg and Alina’s mother said. “Anybody could do it, it’s just whether or not you choose to.”
The film makes an important point: The Miss You Can Do It pageant is not only for the kids but for their parents too. Even in rural Illinois, these parents are able to connect with people who share some of the same struggles—and triumphs.
And no matter what they say, you can tell that the parents and their kids really, really want that trophy (even though no one from the pageant leaves empty-handed). The pageant gives them a renewed sense of determination.
“The meaning of disabled is not having any power,” one of the girls, Teyanna, wrote in an essay. “But I have the power to do anything I am willing to try. That makes me able.”
Miss You Can Do It airs tonight, June 24, at 9 p.m. on HBO.