Libba Bray's Beauty Queens is not what you might expect.
According to Bray, the prompt from her editor was "A plane full of beauty queens crashes on a deserted island. And... GO!" Pageant competitors in a dire situation? It sounds like a recipe for an overly catty misogyfest (or, let's be honest, a terrible porno). Instead, Libba Bray has crafted a complex, blistering satire that is, dare I say, one of the most explicitly feminist novels I have ever read.
First, I'll address the obvious: Beauty Queens has an extremely unfortunate cover. Nothing screams "male gaze" like a picture of a scantily clad female's torso with her head cut off, and even the militarily posed lipstick looks innocuous. Having read the book, though, I can't help but believe that everyone involved is aware of the picture's problems. After all, positing women as passive objects is exactly what the text speaks against. Perhaps there's an irony intended here, but being that the cover is all most will see, I wish it better reflected the darkness or nuance of Bray's book. (Rueben Munoz's drawing for the L.A. Times' review, below, gets a little bit closer.)
Our story begins sometime in the near future, with 14 surviving Miss Teen Dream contestants waking up post-wreckage. They don't all get along, but their methods of surviving become decidedly more Swiss Family Robinson than Lord of the Flies as they rig up contraptions from outfits and cosmetics. (Flies is a frequent reference point in reviews, though I would say Beauty Queens has more in common with the unabashed strangeness of Holes.) True to island trope form, they're not actually alone: The Corporation, the insidious, Big Brother-esque government is watching from a secret compound inside a volcano as they perfect sinister plans involving a Fascist dictating Elvis impersonator. The former pageant members have their own problems, what with hallucinogenic fruit and snakes that devour people in one bite à la Audrey II.
As you've probably gotten by now, the overarching plot is campily absurd . . . which just makes the social commentary more striking.
Bray wastes no time mercilessly satirizing pop culture and the often toxic messages it presents. Beauty Queens itself is set up in a commercial format, with footnoted ads and Corporation employees occasionally butting in to clarify that They Do Not Approve of the young women's growing empowerment. Objects of mockery range from the obvious, eg. sexualization of pre-pubescent boy bands, to the more complicated, such as product placement and the policing of women's sexualities. The satire is not what I would call subtle, but it is relentless in speaking to the kyriarchy.
For example, one of the first footnotes is about a "notoriously fat-phobic" designer whose company's slogan is, "We make the women disappear and the fashion appear!" The designer's name? Roland Me'sognie.
If that appeals to you, you're in for a treat with Bray's narrative. My personal favorite slam is a pitch-perfect commercial for a romantic comedy in which a capable woman with a career is encouraged to base her self-worth on a charming chauvinist... while revealing everything wrong with this trope. Fun for those of us who sat through Amy's O or The Ugly Truth, huh?
Readers start their journey with the nine (!) main characters without knowing much about them. Ready? Adina is a quick-tongued feminist who fancies herself an undercover reporter; Mary Lou is religious and believes she has been cursed to feel lust; Shanti plans to appeal to judges' exotifying tendencies by emphasizing her Indian heritage; Petra is a closeted trans woman and former child star; Sosie leads a deaf dance troupe; Jennifer is a lesbian who chose Miss Teen Dream over juvie; Taylor has been obsessed with pageantry since childhood; Nicole foresees an unsatisfying future as an actor who plays "sassy black friend" roles; Tiara is, well, not very smart and views the pageant as her one way to succeed.
If this all seems uncomfortably tokenistic, it is at first, but each of the main characters gets her own journey in which she is fleshed out. In the case of Shanti, Sosie, and Nicole, tokenization has a lot to do with their presence in the not-so-covertly racist and ableist pageant in the first place, and their experience of otherness is dealt with clearly and with very feminist language. The kyriarchal streamlining of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant is, in fact, a more overt expression of what society wants each character to be. They are far from innocent when it comes to bullying each other, though, and Adina is not exempt. At one pivotal moment, Petra reminds her that "Just because you're funny doesn't mean you get to be cruel."
With so many storylines, Beauty Queens is confusing at times, but it's worth sticking with. It's not perfect; ableist terms often appear uncritically, and the presence of the five remaining pageant characters disturbed me. They have no backstory and are treated as interchangeable—we rarely even hear their names—and I have to wonder why they're in the book in the first place. They seem to go against Bray's message that every young women is more than she appears to be.
Still, I definitely recommend Beauty Queens. It could be especially valuable in classes or book clubs, because "There's a lot to talk about" would be an understatement. A 400-page analysis could probably be written about this 400-page novel. Still, some of Bray's messages are unambiguous. When Tiara drops the favorite slogan "Feminism is for everybody," you may be surprised at how proud you are of her—or of all of them.