"Physiognomy": the act of judging people by their physical appearance.
As in her first film, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley has created a collection of off-beat Southern Gothic characters. These characters seem familiar like old friends (or more like black-sheep cousins), ut the film goes beyond its representation of these endearing characters to explore deeper themes, to ask whether appearances are really important.
The Miss Firecracker Contest, is superficially, a comedy about a small town Southern beauty pageant, in which Henley reflects in a sardonic manner on how and why women put themselves through such contests. The pageant, however, merely frames the action. The play is ultimately about appearances. Henley introduces the idea that women shape their identities and bodies in terms of the opinions of other people, and the more important issue of breaking away from stereotypes in order to discover your personality. The beauty pageant is even held on the Fourth of July -- Independence Day.
All of the women in this play, except Popeye, define themselves in relation to the contest. Staying with Henley's successful formula of an insecure heroine who searches for acceptance from society and her family, The Miss Firecracker Contest is dominated by the beauty queen "wannabe," Carnelle Scott (a role created on stage by then little-known Southern actress Holly Hunter). Carnelle is not merely competing for the crown; she wants to win the contest so that she can win acceptance from the town of Brookhaven, Mississippi, shed her tawdry reputation, and leave the town in a "crimson blaze of glory." Carnelle's own name even expresses her sexual nature -- the derivation of her name, "carnal," means pleasures of a sexual nature.
Her cousin and idol, Elain, is a self-absorbed former pageant winner -- a Scarlett O'Hara for the twentieth century -- still living off the glory of her youth. Even Tessy Mahoney, one of the two ugliest girls in town, takes pleasure in the authority of the whistle and clipboard she wields as pageant coordinator. Of the women, only Popeye -- with her coke-bottle glasses -- is more concerned with "seeing" than with being seen. An admirer of beauty that transcends physical appearance, she serves as a mirror through which others may see their own self-worth.
The Miss Firecracker Contest continues Beth Henley's examination of the South -- and especially of small-town Southern women. In pursuing this theme, she is following in the steps of earlier Southern playwrights, such as Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams. And like Southern author William Faulkner with his fictitious county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, Henley appears to be establishing a physical universe and a cast of familiar characters for her canon of plays.