Beauty Queens

Beauty QueensBeauty Queens by Libba Bray
Publisher: Scholastic
Released: May 24, 2011
Pages: 396
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Show synopsis

The 50 contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras.

But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.

What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness.

I really like what this book sets out to do. I really like the idea of this book, I really like the politics of this book, I really like the moral of this book, and I really like the characters in this book.

I just wish I really liked the book.

I went into Beauty Queens blind, but it quickly became pretty clear what the story of the book was going to be like. A plane with a number of contestants on their way to a beauty pageant crashes on an island. They have to figure out how to survive, and while these women may at first glance seem highly superficial, appearing to care only about their appearance, their clothes, their nails, their hair, and so on, there is probably more to them than meets the eye.

Subtlety isn’t a device that’s used a lot in this book, and boy does it go at it with giving us the impression of superficiality. The stereotypical caricatures of shallow beauty queens are well and truly hammered home. Hammered home again. And then repeated in slow motion, just in case we missed it the first time.
It doesn’t take long to realise that the initial shallowness and stupidity demonstrated by the characters is done incredibly deliberately, and leads onto the general style of the rest of the book. It’s over the top wherever possible, and, indeed, in places where one wouldn’t think it possible.

Over time the book elegantly modifies the caricatures of these women in a really refreshing and, I think, original way. Once the characters develop and become more than the “just” beauty queens, they retain many of their beauty-queen qualities. It’s possible, and perfectly ok, to be strong, independent, and clever, while also caring about your appearance. This book could easily have taken advantage of the obvious stark contrast between “here are the silly beauty queens” and “they are not beauty queens any more, now they are strong and independent”, but it doesn’t. Rather than having the beauty queens change in order to become empowered, it empowers them through showing that they are more, not different, but more than what they thought they were, and more than what the shallow audience of a pageant expects them to be.

There was one aspect of this that I found uncomfortable though. The feeling that the women are being made fun of never went away entirely. It would pop back up in form of a joke or a comment that just felt out of place. It was like small chinks in the armour of the otherwise brilliant and uncompromising empowerment of these women. Just for a moment, just for a sentence, it would feel like the book had gone back to mocking and belittling the characters. And it didn’t feel whimsical or affectionate, it just felt mean and malicious. It wasn’t explained or justified, it just happened. These may have been jokes that were misjudged, or that I just took in the wrong way, but the more I think about it, the more I’ve started thinking that it might be deliberate. Despite these women being the heroes of the story, despite them having shown degrees of courage and shrewdness that goes above and beyond what you could expect from anyone, they are still mocked for some of their feminine traits. Mocked by the very book in which they are the heroes. Regardless of whether I’m reading too much into this, it was jarring and uncomfortable. At the time it felt out of place, but on reflection it kind of feels appropriate.

By necessity there is a plot surrounding these wonderful characters and their journey, and the plot is absolutely ludicrous. This could have turned out to be all right and work well in a book which conceptually sets out to be over the top, ridiculous, and absurd, and I appreciate that the absurdity of the overarching plot is probably a device which is intended to amplify the many absurd elements within it, but it really didn’t work for me. There are only so many contrivances and wink-wink self-aware clichés I can take in a book, and it’s about a third of what was in this one. Granted, there are some excellent sub-plots. There are situations, flashbacks, and scenes which are absolutely brilliantly done, at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times sad, and at times just really moving. But it’s all packed into a main plot that starts out being corny, transitions into the absurd, and then just disintegrates and ends up being so all over the place that I stopped caring about it entirely. That’s not to say the book is bad, not at all, there are regular sections of more or less polished gold throughout it, I just became very bored when making my way between the parts of the story that actually had a point to them.

I was also left with a feeling that the sexism exhibited by some of the characters in this book is passed over too quickly and generously. Most of the characters who employ sexism as a weapon, belittling and patronising the women as tactical power-plays to further their own cause, are portrayed either as evil idiots who have done so out of malice, or as well-meaning idiots who have done so out of ignorance. I think the book could have made this particular issue a little less cut and dry. While institutional and unconscious sexism are almost constant undertones in the book, they aren’t hammered home in the same way as pretty much everything else in this book is. The world which is portrayed in the book is so caricatured that the discrimination and objectification of women is wholly overt. I think this makes it too easy for a certain kind of reader to miss the point entirely, and to be able to come away from the book thinking “well, I’m glad that we don’t live in a world like that!”
Or, to put it another way, the people for whom this book should be the most uncomfortable would easily be able to discard it as a story set in some dystopia rather than see it for what it really is, an exaggerated, but in many ways accurate, version of the world we actually live in.

I would recommend this book, but I’d recommend it on the basis of it being philosophically interesting and occasionally thought-provoking. From an entertainment point of view I think it could have been more… entertaining. From a political point of view I’m just not convinced that it would strike the chord it should be striking in the people for whom that particular chord desperately needs to be struck.

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