by Libba Bray
Published by Scholastic Press
2 Out of 5 StarsMeh. Just meh. Beauty Queens is not at all what I expected. What I expected was a group of beauty queens crash lands on an isolated island and it's not long before the ruthlessness of the pageant morphs into a violent "survival of the fittest" mentality, a la Lord of the Flies. I would have also settled for a dark and biting satire on consumerism and pop culture. Alas, what I got was an increasingly irritating "Girl Power!" message that never quite got off the ground as it never quite rejected everything it didactically preached against. As a message of female empowerment, it has all the depth of Day-to-Night Barbie (oh, how I remember that Barbie in her pink, tailored "go-getter" workplace dress that conveniently converted into a sparkly tulle evening number, proving to little girls that we could be serious and glamorous while we had it all).
To begin with, the novel was far too long and tried to pack in too much for what it was. Beauty queens crashing onto a deserted island is more than enough for a quirky, humorous read, but Bray packs everything she possibly can into the novel: pop culture gags, pro-LGBT messages, reclamation of female sexuality, skewerings of materialism and consumerism, secret lairs and evil mega-corporations. Hell, there's even an evil dictator named Mo-Mo who is a thinly veiled version of Kim Jong-Il. And on top of all of this is a thick layer of "You're perfect just the way you are!" frosting that makes everything A-Okay.
Now I'm a fan of all of these messages (and I especially applaud Bray for including lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters). The problem is that the characters start off as stereotypical beauty queens, focused only on cosmetics, weight, dresses, and winning. The disconnect from society provided by the island gives them the opportunity to explore who they truly are without the consumer and societal "noise" telling girls what they should be. This is all well and good, but the girls seem to undergo an inauthentic sea-change in personality after building a few huts and sewing sparkly banners to attract help. They then become more intellectual, empowered versions of themselves, but no less stereotypical: the prickly feminist, the smart Indian girl, the tough lesbian, the defiant deaf girl, and the dumb bimbo who is trying, like, really hard to be smart. And then there is the tiny contingent of girls who survive for no other reason than to shoot off one-liners and help move the plot along. They're never given any depth or dimension, and are never really referred to by anything other than their "Miss . . . " title. The only interesting character is Taylor, the ultimate pageant girl, who finally snaps and, in a nod to Heart of Darkness and maybe even Tim O'Brien's Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, becomes one with the violence that has always lain dormant within her.
Bray vacillates between slapstick humor and serious messages. While I did enjoy the first few chapters and there were some lines that made me laugh, most of the humor was predictable and inspired only an eye-roll as I turned the page. Unfortunately, the smart stuff, the stuff that needs to be recognized and addressed, becomes lost in the fluff. The novel's own inane silliness ultimately downplays what could have been a more powerful exploration of being a girl in today's society. Or it could have been just a fun powder puff of a novel. Either way, it would have been better than what it ultimately turned out to be. I suppose I could be accused of taking this more seriously than I should have, but I think the same argument could be made of Bray. By the ending chapter, the girls dance their way off the stage while the narrator tells us what they're wearing and gives a synopsis of what their future lives hold. Like Day-to-Night Barbie, they look fabulous and have fabulously successful lives. For the same reason I ultimately got rid of Barbie, I think I'll get rid of Beauty Queens.