Beauty Queens, Libba Bray, Scholastic (2011)
Photo courtesy of Scholastic
“I think I was always in the jungle. Before. It was always there. I think I had to come out here to find the answer.”
“And what did you find?”
“I love myself. They make it so hard for us to love ourselves.”
Do not be deceived by this cover — this is not a story about pretty girls. I mean, okay, so it is — but not in the way you’d expect. Beauty Queens is part absolute hilarity, part scathing critique; the most entertaining feminism-guide-for-girls I’ve ever read. Along with hitting every important aspect of feminism I could think of, it also rages against all manner of ills brought on by a shallow and corrupt capitalistic society in general. From the first page on I was either chuckling out loud or wishing Libbra Bray was sitting next to me while I read so we could enthusiastically fist-bump together repeatedly. In other words, I loved every moment.
Our protagonists are all contestants en route to the Miss Teen Dream Pageant when their plane crashes into a desert island. While most of the folks on board die immediately, including all of the chaperones and airline employees (bummer for them), a chunk of the teen girls survive and spend the rest of the 390 pages struggling to stay alive on the island. Although “struggling” is perhaps too heavy of a verb for the Miss Teen Dreamers — it wasn’t necessarily easy, but they did alright for themselves. After all, they’re teenage girls, and the power and ingenuity of teenage girls should never, ever be underestimated.
Imagine Lost without that terrifying black smoke monster, with a compound run by the all-powerful Corporation replacing that creepy place where The Others lived. Imagine Lord of the Flies without all those boring dudes, with empowerment and liberation replacing that downer, fatalistic message about humanity.
Beyond the critique and the fun, one of the other reasons you should want to read it? Among the beauty queens, there’s a lesbian. There’s a transgender girl. There’s a deaf girl who’s also a bisexual girl. There’s also an Indian-American girl who had to fake a “my-parents-immigrated-to-this-country-to-follow-their-dreams” storyline to give the judges and the American people what they wanted to hear. There’s a black girl who has to make sure she’s reserved and friendly enough to not appear too “ethnic,” to avoid what the judges don’t want to hear.
I believe my favorite girl is actually Miss Nebraska, who self-describes herself as one of the “wild girls,” a girl who is in tune with her body and her vibrant sexuality and her powerful desires to be — well, wild, and free, to what society would deem a dangerous degree. She has spent her teen years thus far tamping down the wild girl, hiding her sex drive, after thoroughly understanding how wrong she supposedly is, burning in her shame.
There are girls who appear smart and girls who appear dumb. But in the end they can all harbor hurt and they are all capable of courage and strength. And on the island, with nothing to rely on but themselves, they begin to unravel the lies they have been told about themselves, the truths they have been too afraid to admit — that they are more than what adults and parents and boys and the media want them to be, and that it is okay to not sparkle all the time.
As the truths of each girl’s identities were slowly revealed throughout the novel, I began to immediately hear the critics in my head — that when there is this level of diversity portrayed, whether it be in a book or a TV show or a movie, it is “too much,” “overkill.” It seems any time a minority is included in a work, particularly when the author is of the non-minority group, that author must be “pandering” to said minority group for money or attention, or out of societal pressure, feels the need to include those characters as “tokens.”
But after thinking about it for a moment, I had the realization — no. If you took a random selection of a dozen American girls? This would most likely be your group. There would be sexual minorities. There would be racial and ethnic minorities. There would be religious minorities. There would be those who are differently abled. Okay, you might not have every single one, but most of them would all be there. Libba Bray’s portrayal of a group of seemingly similar girls (all beauty queens) who turn out to all be wonderful different (in a variety of ways) is not overkill — it is accurate. It is just an accuracy that has not been portrayed in the past. It is an accuracy that we are still, in all forms of media, struggling to get right.
Issues of authenticity will always be an important debate to have, and one that I personally may never feel completely settled on. For example, Libba Bray is a straight, white woman (although perhaps I should clarify that she’s married to a man, which shouldn’t necessarily make one confident about her sexuality) who takes on a variety of experiences she has not personally lived. But what I do believe is that as an author, as any kind of creator, while you may not always have the authenticity to speak for a certain group and you should never pretend you do, you should be able to portray the diverse scope of the world to the best of your abilities — not to be diverse, but to be accurate. In fact, I believe that is kind of sort of your job. And Libba Bray does a smashingly good job of it.
To step only slightly off of my soapbox for a moment — did I mention there are pirates? There are pirates. (Well, fake reality-TV pirates, but still.) Did I fully explain that there is an evil Corporation that is ruining indigenous cultures as well as our own by the minute and the beauty queens are going to take them on? Did I note that Miss New Mexico walks around with a plastic airline tray lodged in her forehead the entire time? Did I forget to quote this line—”It’s always darkest before the ultimate sparkle”?
Why are you not reading this already?