I read this book (after paying cash money for it) because I thought it was something like a feminist parody of Lord of the Flies
with maybe a little Battle Royale
thrown in. Alas, even though Libba Bray unsubtly references her influences, this is not so much a parody as an anvilicious satire that really wants to be a touching, empowering straight-to-video release from the Disney Channel.
“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 so want to pat this book on its head for being so, so precious. Beauty Queens
tries really, really hard to be laugh-out-loud funny while delivering earnest messages about Feminism and Being Yourself and Tolerating Diversity and Trusting Your Instincts and it screams from every page: "Look at how wittily I make a serious point by spoofing pop culture and turning stereotypes on their heads and subverting your expectations!" Except the funny wears very thin quickly, and then Libba Bray's earnest grrrl power messages just keep thudding into the sand, one plummeting anvil after another.
The author kills off 36 of the 50 Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants on page 1, so she only has to deal with 14 protagonists. But it's not like they actually remember or care about any of the dead people, even though the rest of the book is all about bonding and sisterhood and Friends4Ever After Overcoming Differences. A few of the girls had enough personality for me to remember them, though most were notable for their unique distinguishing feature, like Miss Rhode Island, who is a transgendered former boy band member, or Miss California, an Indian-American who capitalizes on her "model minority child of immigrants" shtick even though she's a purebred valley girl at heart, or Miss New Hampshire, the mouthy Jewish girl who is the overt voice of feminist indignation, a wannabe journalist who of course joined the pageant to write an expose and trash it. Likewise there is a lesbian from a "trailer trash" background, a deaf bisexual, an African-American girl whose major defining characteristic is... being black, and no, Libba Bray, just because you deliberately point out that she's a token in a very self-aware and critical way does not make her tokenism less glaring. It's like the author sat down with a list of check-boxes to tick off, and while her heart is certainly in the right place, I just got weary of it. "Oh, here's the chapter about why it's hypocritical and wrong to condemn female sexuality. And here's the chapter about why the Sassy Black Friend and the Best Gay Friend are demeaning stereotypes. And here's the chapter about No Means No."
There wasn't a single message in the book that I disagreed with. Bravo if it actually dislodges some harmful notions from the teen girls who read it. (And boys, though let's face it, how many of those will read this book?)
And I won't say it wasn't entertaining or funny. There was some funny. Libba Bray is good at banter.
Mary Lou raised her hand and waited to be recognized. “I need to tell y’all something. There is somebody else on the island. A guy named Tane Ngata.”
“What?” Miss Montana said. “Have you been hitting the plant juice?”
“Listen! I didn’t know how to tell you this. He’s an eco-warrior and an ornithologist.”
Brittani gasped. “Ohmigosh. You’re into the freaky stuff, aren’t you?”
“An ornithologist is a bird-watcher,” Mary Lou explained.
Brittani recoiled. “That’s just sick.”
“If there is a guy on the island, why didn’t you tell us before?” Adina asked.
“I don’t know! Because I was scared. And then I wanted something that was all mine. And I just … I don’t know.” Mary Lou told them everything — about her nights with Tane, how special he was, about his theory that The Corporation had a secret compound on the island.
“Are you sure you didn’t just imagine it?” Nicole asked. “I mean, I’ve read about people getting kind of island-crazy after a while.”
“He’s real, I swear! We had awesome almost-sex,” Mary Lou insisted.
Petra put a hand on her shoulder. “Sweetie, sometimes I like to think that Heathcliff is waiting for me at Thrushcross Grange in tight breeches and leather boots. Doesn’t make it true.”
“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.”
“See, now I don’t know whether to be all ‘Yay!’ because you’re empowered or sad because you’re having delusional almost-sex with an imaginary boyfriend,” Adina said.
The plot becomes more and more ridiculous, involving hot pirate boys who are escapees from a reality TV show, arms smuggling, engineering an invasion of a small third-world country (cue lots of thinly-veiled Bush jokes), a secret base inside a volcano, giant snakes, a bunch of teenage girls who take out a small private army of soldiers armed with AK-47s by swinging from trees and spraying them in the face with hair conditioner, and then it just gets really silly.
If you can set your suspension of disbelief to 11 and just accept this for the feminist-friendly absurdist comedy it is, Beauty Queens
is an amusing light read with such an endless onslaught of jokes (including outtakes, footnotes, cut scenes, voice-overs, Beauty Queen Fact Sheets, and so on) that a few of them will probably provoke at least a chuckle. And it wouldn't be a bad thing to foist on your teen daughter, since it's packed with girl-power messages disguised as savvy humor and parody. Like I said, I have no complaints about the author's intent.
But, it's a one-note farce stretched to book-length with a plot that is not even remotely serious. I give it 2.5 stars: +1 star for being occasionally funny, +1 star for having its heart in the right place, -1 star for trying too hard, and -1 star for being all heart and no brain.