Beauty Queens might just be the most conflicted I’ve ever been regarding a book. I love Libba Bray‘s writing, from her Gemma Doyle trilogy to her masterfully irreverent . This is also irreverent, but I think that it often goes too far, distracting from the points that she’s trying to make. I loved it and couldn’t put it down, but I disagreed with a great deal of it.
The premise of the novel is in Bray’s own words:
…years ago over lunch, my editor David Levithan said, “A colleague and I came up with an idea and you have to write it: A plane carrying teen beauty pageant survivors crashes on an island. And…scene!”
Bray takes this hook and runs with it, creating a heavily satirical novel exploring the depths of the effects of American culture on its young women. Each of the girls alive on the island is a beauty contestant from a different state, and each has been let down by the men in her life or seen someone be destroyed by a man or the American patriarchal cultural. Whether they were absent fathers, overbearing fathers, boyfriends who wanted to go too far, or the omniscient “man” who expects things out of them–in the end, each was a victim. The intent of this novel is to demonstrate how each girl individually comes to terms with who she is as a young woman, outside of the expectations of culture or authority. I’m all for that–to a point.
Now, I’m a guy and maybe that immediately disqualifies me from having an opinion (according to Beauty Queens, it likely does). Despite that, I think that Bray’s choice of a Miss America-esque beauty pageant (called Miss Teen Dream in the novel) is a perfect choice to showcase a typically male institution that prides itself on objectifying women. It’s a feminist’s worst nightmare–and it’s mine, too. I think it’s awful, and films like Little Miss Sunshine and Whip It, as well as various documentaries, have explored the fairly dysfunctional world of pageantry. In that way, I absolutely understand where Bray is coming from, and as a satirist should, she takes it a step further. I think, however, that rather than pointing out that every single male in the world (except for one, which may say something there) is a misogynistic exploiter (or exploiter-to-be), that both girls and guys should be discerning regarding those with whom they form relationships.
Beauty Queens is like Lord of the Flies meets Lost and Y: The Last Man. We delve into the pasts of each of the girls stranded on the island; we learn about their scars and walk with them as they form new relationships based on strength and camaraderie. Facades are broken down, shallow waters begin to run deeper, and some prejudices are transformed. I really grew to enjoy the different characters and their arcs, particularly as they crossed paths.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are commercials sponsored by the ominous “Corporation” which secretly runs the United States; these cover every topic, generally having to do with beauty, and are heavily sexist–they’re also very funny and most often on point. Television and advertising are so pervasive throughout American culture, aimed at both males and females, that it’s a worthy subject to take on.
All that said, I really enjoyed the book, but as always, I urge readers–particularly teen readers, but this applies to everyone–to read with discernment. There are some really good things that can be gleaned from this novel, but there are some places that go a bit too far. It’s funny and irreverent–two things I always enjoy–but I’d like it to be a bit more even-handed. Not everything today is the fault of a male.