Book Review: ‘Beauty Queens’ by Libba Bray
Scholastic: 396 pp., $18.99, ages 13 and up
Few events are more intrinsically ridiculous than the sequined spectacle of surgically enhanced females fake-baked to perfection and trotted on stage to one-up one another with vacuous platitudes in the hopes of winning … a tiara. Long derided by feminists as a patriarchal shill to oppress women, beauty pageants are nevertheless fascinating — if only for their comedic value, which bestselling young-adult novelist Libba Bray mines for all it’s worth in “Beauty Queens.”
Employing a perfect metaphor to explore women’s competition with other women, Bray ups the ante with her sarcastic and brilliant new book, which crashes a plane full of Miss Teen Dream contestants onto a tropical island where survival is a sort of beauty regimen. Pieces of the fuselage are collected and used for tanning reflectors. A salvaged evening gown is repurposed to collect rainwater. Their straightening irons, it turns out, are also quite good at catching fish.
There’s little food, but that doesn’t trouble Miss Mississippi, who thrills at how super-skinny she’ll be by pageant time.
In a feminist manifesto that reads like Mad magazine, only 13 of 50 state contestants have survived the crash, including Miss Illinois, Miss Michigan and perennial pageant survivor in real life, Miss California, who in “Beauty Queens” isn’t an Amazonian blond but a petite, second-generation Indian American.
Of the survivors, only Miss New Hampshire sees the pageant as an objectification rather than a glorification of women. She describes herself as a “beauty pageant Che Guevara” on her sure-to-be-edited Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page — one of several in a book whose format is as unconventional as its story line.
In addition to occasional Fun Facts vetted by Miss Teen Dream’s sponsor, The Corporation, there are scripts for commercial breaks that interrupt the novel’s action, as if “Beauty Queens” was a TV show. There are also footnotes explaining products like What R U, A Woolly Mammoth? eyebrow gel and TV programs such as “Bridal Death Match,” which is about “brides who cage-fight each other in order to win the wedding of their dreams,” and “Patriot Daughters,” for which Betsy Ross has been reimagined as a scantily clad harlot.
A send-up of commercial culture, narcissistic reality TV programming and beauty products that shame women while fixing their supposed flaws, “Beauty Queens” is a brainy, laugh-out-loud page-turner that teeters on the edge of insanity without ever losing its footing. Bray’s voice is not only singular but sharp as a Ginsu, incorporating veiled references to “Jersey Shore,” 'N Sync and other inexplicably popular cultural atrocities designed to appeal to an ever-dumber America.
As the contestants navigate an island that Miss Mississippi describes as “super creepy” and “like a haunted Chuck E. Cheese’s where the games all want to kill you and you never get your pizza,” they begin to pull back the curtain on the pageant and what it means. In the process of saving themselves, they find their individual selves.
They also happen upon an evil dictator, a corporate conspiracy and, just when you think “Beauty Queens” is about to suffer from an estrogen overdose, a shipwrecked boat of hot pirates who, of course, have their own TV show.
While it takes half the book to keep the contestants straight, “Beauty Queens” does exactly what Miss Texas encouraged at the book’s beginning: “In the pageant of life, a girl picks up fallen sequins and turns them into a brand-new dress of awesome.” Bray’s latest is that brand-new dress. It’s a wonderfully executed, high-concept, feminist, comic tragedy.
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