Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Beauty Queens" by Libba Bray

Each year when I teach Lord of the Flies to my 9th graders, someone always asks how the book might have been different if girls, instead of boys, had been stranded on the island. Well, we need wonder no more, as Bray has taken on that task herself in Beauty Queens.  However, her novel depicts not just a group of girls stranded on an island, but a group of beauty pageant contestants on their way to the national Miss Teen Dream competition.

Golding wrote Lord of the Flies as an allegory depicting the evil in he saw in mankind, and Bray also uses her book not as a realistic survival story (more Gilligan's Island than dehydration and starvation), but as a kind of female-empowerment tale or Feminism 101 course.  There's nothing particularly deep for people already familiar with the issues of gendered expectations, unrealistic beauty standards, etc., but the content is put into a fun, outrageous formula, so it hardly matters.  This is a book with man-eating snakes, explosive hair remover, a contestant with a food tray stuck in her forehead, hot bare-chested pirates, and girls with assassin-like capabilities, just to name a few things.  You get the message that women should make their own choices--and you also get cosmetic weapons.

My favorite character is Taylor, Miss Teen Dream Texas, a pageant devotee who's maniacal about preparing for the competition, even when stranded on the island, yet she manages to corral and lead all the girls through her unwavering devotion to the Teen Dream "way" (well, until she goes crazy).  Her foil, the liberal feminist from New Hampshire, Adina, is also great (e.g., take her trying to win leadership of the group through a speech in strict debate format).

Bray does rely on the young adult "issue dump," which sometimes bothers me, but the novel is so absurd it almost makes sense.  There's a contestant representing most every issue under the sun: racial identity, cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, and disability, among others.

One of the frequent comments that arises when my students talk about an all-female Lord of the Flies is the idea that women would somehow be more likely to "bicker" and fight among themselves.  Bray sets out to refute this.  The girls don't always get along, especially in the beginning, but strong friendships soon emerge and are what get them through the difficulties (like the aforementioned man-eating snake, or evil Corporation goons, or an insane Elvis-wannabe dictator...).

Golding's Lord of the Flies is a deeply cynical novel which suggests that, away from society, boys will become savage and lose their sense of self.  In Beauty Queens, Bray suggests the opposite for girls: society restricts girls' true selves, and the island allows the beauty queens freedom. Says Mary Lou, "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" (177).

Though the absurd action sometimes reminded me of a Nickelodeon kids' show, the book is so over-the-top goofy and cheesy that you can't help but laugh and go along with it.  And, best of all, there's a strong feminist message throughout.

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