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Don’t be misled by the bikini-clad model on the cover of Beauty Queens (Scholastic Press); this is decidedly not a simple hot-girls-on-an-island story. Author Libba Bray, a Printz award-winner, addresses corporate abuse of power, the culture of fear that is perpetuated through advertising, and restrictive gender binaries in this engaging book.
When a plane full of teenage beauty queens crash lands on a deserted island, the young women find themselves in a situation that no Miss Teen Dream has ever faced before: a simple struggle for survival. The girls are forced to leave their glamorous pageant life behind, and face the reality of living in the wilderness. Add in a conspiracy, an international relations nightmare, shipwrecked pirates, and a tremendous amount of satire, and you have a gem of a novel that deftly probes consumerist culture, feminism, and identity politics.
After a short time on the island, the ladies discover a tremendous conspiracy: The Corporation, sponsor of the Teen Dream Pageant, is trading illegal arms with the Republic of ChaCha, headed by the enigmatic and unstable MoMo. There is a concealed base on the island, full of Corporation personnel who are aware of the girls’ presence, but have no intentions of rescuing the Teen Dreamers. The plane crash was just to boost ratings; no one was really supposed to get hurt. However, the girls find they have a lot more to worry about after they accidentally discover the ties between ChaCha and The Corporation. They become threats to the company, and have to use all their sparkle and ingenuity to save themselves.
The intensely political nature of the book is balanced with humor and solid character development. Bray subverts the traditional beauty queen cliché in a very clever way. The characters initially appear to be stereotypical, fashion-obsessed pageant girls, but as the story continues, fissures appear in their feminine facades. Taylor is handy with firearms, Jennifer is a comic-loving lesbian, Petra is transgender, and Adina only entered the pageant in order to bring it down from the inside, and destroy the misogyny that it represents. The young women are multifaceted, as well as diverse; no one is a stock character in this story. While they aren’t your typical beauty queens, they are not simply the polar opposites of the Teen Dream stereotype, either. Sosie is hearing-impaired, but rejects the apologetic, non-offensive, I’m-ok-with-my-disability-so-don’t-feel-sorry-for-me stance. She’s honest: being deaf sucks and she’s tired of always having to pretend that it doesn’t bother her, in order not to make people around her feel guilty or uncomfortable. Nicole and Shanti struggle with perceptions about their ethnicity, feeling alienated from their respective races, but too different to fit in with the other girls. The characters are like very real girls, with realistic struggles, and keeping them grounded in such an absurdist setting is a feat of authorial skill.
While the young women are working out how to survive on the island, they ultimately learn more about themselves. They have frank conversations about parental pressure, sexuality, and identity. This quality takes the book to a new level and transforms it from being merely clever and funny to being a real stand-out novel. Throughout the text, the girls are renegotiating their ideas about gender and sexuality in a series of natural conversations. From their interactions, they come to some very healthy—but never preachy—conclusions about relationships and intimacy. The book presents a wide range of situations that teens often find themselves in, sending the message that these experiences are absolutely normal: it’s all right to be confused about your sexual identity; it’s normal to get your heart broken. Without being didactic, the book offers the image of women working in an interconnected and supportive community, rather than in competition. One stand-out scene has the pageant contestants collectively deciding to ban the phrase “I’m sorry” because they feel women are often apologizing for things they shouldn’t feel sorry about.
Like the content, the format of this book is unique and compelling: it is arranged to mimic a reality-television show, with Fun Facts about each Teen Dream contestant, interviews, commercial breaks, and a hilarious set of alternate endings offered when one of the girls is about to be intimate with her partner. The alternate endings are not only funny, but serve to destabilize those messages that society gives us about appropriate female behavior. In a section following a liaison, The Corporation has this to say:
Sexuality is not meant to be this way—an honest, consensual expression in which a girl might take an active role when she feels good and ready and not one minute before. No. Sexual desire is meant to sell soap. And cars. And beer. And religion.
The book is packed with witty footnotes, advertisements, plot scenarios, and it is these elements that really make the satire shine. Nothing is sacred here: Bray lampoons advertising culture, television, politics, and consumerism with equal humor and skill. Clever readers will note parallels between Sarah Palin and Ladybird Hope, and several George W. Bush vocabulary gems creep in. Anyone remember “misunderestimate”?
Bray has created a fast-paced, clever, incisive book with appealing characters. She covers a lot of serious topics, but keeps it balanced with a heady combination of slapstick and satire. This is a book for those who love beauty pageants, those who hate them, anyone who’s ever felt pressured to be beautiful, and those who think Lord of the Flies isn’t what would really happen if a bunch of people were stranded together on an island.
by Libba Bray
Hardcover, 9780439895972, 400pp