Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press, 2011. Currently available.
Genre: YA Fiction/Satire
Face Value: This cover had me pulling out my credit card before I knew what the book was about or who wrote it. Let’s break it down into its main components.
Fit, stereotypically attractive blonde girl in a bikini, with her head and legs cut off: Oh dear, another tragic case of YA cover disembodied female syndrome. The female body is majorly on display here, and the girl is even sweating delicately in that way favored by health magazines and Sports Illustrated. (“I’m not sweating, I’m ‘glowing.’”)
Beauty queen sash: This is where it starts to get subversive. The sash is dirty and worn, signaling to readers that this will be an unusual take on the beauty queen theme.
Lipstick bandolier: Now we’re talking! Taking the trappings of feminine beautification and turning it into weaponry – that’s cool.
The whole Beauty Queens package is playing with tropes about girlhood and femininity. The synopsis promises evening gowns and a body count, and the cover image stands out on bookshelves. From far away, a customer would first see the pastel color palette and the female body. It’s only when you get up close that you notice the twisted take on the swimsuit competition. Beauty Queens is using our cultural stereotypes and shaking them up in a way that will challenge our assumptions about teen girls while still having considerable market appeal.
Does it break the slate? The slate is shattered. The girl characters in Beauty Queens defy cultural expectations and blast through teen archetypes. They come to terms with their own bodies and backgrounds. They become confident in their own ideas. They discover sex as something to be enjoyed and respected, but not feared. The leading ladies of this story are complex, motivated, and dynamic girls who defy expectations.
Who would we give it to? 13-year-old me, with hopes that the confident ladies in this book would inspire my timid early-adolescent self to speak up and have some more self-confidence. Also, everyone we’ve ever met.
Review: Beauty Queens is not a perfect book. It’s chaotic, there are too many characters, and the plot veers in ten different directions. Bray includes a pseudo-political storyline about an Elvis impersonating dictator named MoMo B. ChaCha, and this ridiculous extension of the plot could easily have been trimmed down. The departure and return of various characters sent my head spinning. But even with its myriad faults, Beauty Queens totally and completely stole my heart.
I want to give Libba Bray a big hug for incorporating multidimensional, kick-ass LGBTQ characters into the story. Their sexualities are part of them, of course, but that is not what defines those characters. Sosie is a dancer, and Jennifer is a mechanical genius superhero, and Petra is an innovative fashion goddess and a nurturer. Unfortunately, not all of the girl characters are fully developed. A handful of girls fall apart from the pack and are only referred to by their state titles. Miss New Mexico, for example. This was distressing because I loved getting to know the amazing girls at the forefront of the story, but the rest of the surviving beauty queens quickly devolved into stereotypes in a swimsuit.
The girl love throughout this book is phenomenal. Girl friend love, girl romantic love, begrudging admiration and respect for a competitor love – it’s all there, and it’s all awesome. Two passages made me tear up because they hit so close to home for me. The first was the passage in which the girls pledge to ban the word “sorry” from their island existence:
“Why do girls always feel like they have to apologize for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that?” Nicole asked. “You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it’s longer than three sentences or she’s expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, ‘Sorry for the rant’ or ‘That may be dumb, but that’s what I think.’”
“I say sorry all the time. The other day, this lady bumped into me with her grocery cart, and I said I was sorry,” Mary Lou said, shaking her head.
Shanti raised her hand. “I move we officially ban the word sorry from our vocabularies while we’re here.”
“I second that, if that’s okay,” Petra said, grinning. “If not, sorry.”
I apologize for myself over and over again, like many other women I know, and I cringe every time but I just can’t stop. I want to make a big poster of this passage and tape it to my wall to remind myself that I don’t need to apologize for my opinions. Here’s the second passage that has wrapped around my heart and is there to stay:
“I’ve been thinking about that book about the boys who crash on the island,” Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.
“Lord of the Flies. What about it?”
“You know how you said it wasn’t a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if there had been girls?”
Mary Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”
Adina gazed out at the expanse of unknowable ocean. “Maybe.”
There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.
They were becoming.
I LOVE THAT SO MUCH!
Libba Bray is a champion for giving this concept a try. The book’s not perfect- the plot is frustratingly flawed, but the main pageant contestant characters are inspiring young women. And Sarah Palin – er, I mean Ladybird Hope – had me in giggling fits every time. Those bad-ass beauty queens earned my eternal devotion. Rock on, Beauty Queens. Rock on.
Review copy purchased from Changing Hands bookstore.