Review: Beauty Queens

Cover image shows a tan teenage girl wearing a bikini, a pageant sash, and a bandolier full of tubes of lipstick instead of bullets.

 I picked up Beauty Queens on a whim, having never read any of Libba Bray’s books and having been stuck in a reading rut for a while. Nothing I picked up lately had thrilled me, and the cover of Bray’s newest release drew me in. Beauty pageant contestants having to fight for survival after crashing on a deserted island? I haven’t read anything like that before. Count me in.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve never read Bray before, but I was surprised and delighted by this book right off the bat. It’s hilarious. It’s written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style full of satire, but with enough heart that you become truly invested in the characters. The book is genius in that you begin with a lot of assumptions about the cast of girls who are the main characters: they’re all Miss Teen Dream contestants, so you assume that they’re all vain and vapid and that they’ll be utterly helpless on this island. But we learn more about each girl, starting with Adina, a feminist and a journalist who joined the pageant so she could write an expose on it; Nicole, who doesn’t care about pageants but wants the scholarship money so she can go to med school, and who struggles to try to be the “nice black girl”; and Tiara, who is not especially smart and actually likes pageants and makeup, but is not discounted or brushed aside. That’s the great thing, is that ALL the girls are given equal time. The black girl and Indian girl are not token, even though they expected to be in the pageant. The lesbian girl and trans girl are not ostracized. The girls who really believe in the pageant are not written off as stupid bitches. And they all come through in awesome and unexpected ways when they realize they’re probably not going to get rescued.

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? 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.’

Once the girls give up on being rescued, they drop their pageant facades and start to open up to one another. It’s so refreshing to just see girls talking to each other this way, talking about the things they’re always told they can’t or shouldn’t do and vowing to stop saying “sorry” for having opinions or taking up space. It sounds kind of Breakfast Club, I know, but I promise it’s SO GREAT. Because the girls are not being bombarded by commercials or pageant coaches telling them how to be the perfect girl, they’re able to be who they want to be for the first time.

‘Weren’t you wearing a purity ring when we got here? Aren’t you supposed to be saving yourself?’ Shanti asked.

‘Yeah,’ Mary Lou answered. ‘And then I thought, for what? You save leftovers. My sex is not a leftover, and it is not a Christmas present.’

I just can’t say enough good things about this book. I want to assign it as required reading in every high school. Beyond the awesome feminist ideals I’ve been talking about, there is a conspiracy on the island that the girls uncover. There are transcripts of commercials interspersed throughout the book, and they are so perfect in the way they deconstruct our sexist culture. These commercials are all sponsored by The Corporation, which seems to sell every type of product and also has a mysterious base on the island. Ladybird Hope, A former Miss Teen Dream winner-turned-presidential candidate is making a secret deal with the eccentric leader of the Republic of ChaCha. These two characters are pretty obviously caricatures of Sarah Palin and Kim Jong Il, and Ladybird Hope’s televised interviews are completely nonsensical and representative of a lot of political posturing in our country. All of this is super tongue-in-cheek (MoMo B. ChaCha hates America, loves Elvis, and has a stuffed lemur he calls General Good Times), but has enough roots in reality to hit home.

Bray’s sense of humor actually reminds me of Terry Pratchett a little bit:  Miss New Mexico having half of a cafeteria tray stuck in her forehead for the duration of the novel, the weapons fashioned from beauty tools and sequined dresses re-purposed as raincatchers. Everything’s just a little bit absurd, but not unbelievable. I laughed out loud so many times while reading this book (lest you think this is a serious book about serious themes like racism and ableism and cissexism – it is about those things, but they don’t always have to be serious). This is a fun book full of awesome girls learning just how awesome they are, and I love that. Major props to Libba Bray for writing this fantastic book.

Beauty Queens is available in bookstores now (and every single one of you should go read it).

Bitch Magazine Removes Books From ‘100 Feminist Books for the YA Reader’ List

This is really disappointing. Bitch Magazine made what was an awesome list of feminist YA books. But after a couple of people complained in the comments, they swiftly removed and replaced three books: Tender Morsels, Sisters Red, and Living Dead Girl. Why? One because it was deemed to be too triggering (despite that you could say the same for nearly all the other books on the list) and the other two because of scenes regarding rape.

The only one of these books that I’ve read is Sisters Red, which I think is an excellent feminist novel. (You can read my review here.) Yes, there is a scene in which one of the characters is victim-blaming. But is it wrong to include that in a novel that’s partly about sexuality and rape? Because the scene in question is from Scarlett’s point of view, I don’t think we’re meant to agree with her. Scarlett is a survivor, and if we look at Fenris attacks as symbolic of rapes, I think she’s struggling to prove that she didn’t “deserve” it. Scarlett is angry and irrational and blames herself for everything. I don’t think it’s un-feminist to include a scene where, as part of her struggle, she tries to blame other women. I think it’s something we should discuss, but I don’t think it makes this book un-feminist.

Oh, and you can bet your ass I’m going to go read the other two books now.

You can read wonderful comments on this topic from Holly Black, Maureen Johnson, Diana Peterfreund, and Scott Westerfeld, all of whom have books featured on the list, all of which could be considered triggering or which have been challenged from a feminist viewpoint. I love that these authors are so willing to stand behind their work and their colleagues’ work, and I suggest you go read what they have to say.