Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

It wants to be Lord of the Flies + Austin Powers; it's actually Mean Girls + LiveJournal.

Beauty Queens

Scholastic, 2011, 396 pages

The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.

What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.

The only reason I read this book was because I tend to read books in "clusters" — I'll get interested in a particular theme and decide to read several books related to it for comparison.

Having read The Hunger Games and Battle Royale (and Lord of the Flies when I was a kid — it's due for a reread), I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of spoof/satire Libba Bray had written on this theme.

Beauty Queens, however, is not even remotely like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, and it's only superficially similar to Lord of the Flies. It's actually a snarky, lightly entertaining treatise on feminism, ableism, racism, classism, colonialism, consumerism, capitalism, tokenism, cronyism, militarism, environmentalism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, eating disorders, body image, male gaze theory, abstinence education, purity rings, the media, democracy, worker rights, pop culture, and every single social justice issue ever along with whatever other heartfelt messages Libba Bray could pack into a story about fourteen beauty pageant contestants who've crashed on a desert island.

Taylor had already begun clearing plant debris into a tidy pile for burning. “This is not the Miss Teen Dream spirit, ladies.”

Miss New Mexico tried scooping a handful of sand into her mouth, but Adina stopped her.

“We need food!” Miss Ohio cried, and the others moaned in agreement.

“Miss Teen Dreamers. It is time to get ahold of ourselves. Miss Alabama, I did not mean that literally. That is gross. Stop it.” Taylor scooped up seawater in a large shell and poured it over the ends of her hair, rinsing out the mud. “Remember: We are Miss Teen Dreamers. We are not victims. We are not cowards. We are bright shining stars, beacons of hope to all who arrive on the shores of our beauty.”

Mary Lou pointed to the surf. “There’s an ocean full of fish out there if we could find some way to catch them.”

“I hope there’s salmon,” Brittani said. “Salmon has a lot of omega-3. My consultant, Tricia, says it’s really good for your skin and nails.”

“Right. Because I’m really worried about my FUCKING NAILS AT THIS POINT!” Adina screamed.

“Language, Miss New Hampshire. You owe me twenty-five cents for that potty mouth.” Taylor took the lip gloss from her zippered pocket and slicked it over her mouth. “Let’s ignore those who would bring us down and affirm, Teen Dreamers: How are we gonna get us some fish?”

Everyone shouted at once. “We could try grabbing them!” “Fishing pole.” “Laser gun!” “Think positive thoughts!”

“We could spear them,” Mary Lou offered.

“With what?” Miss Ohio asked.

Mary Lou blushed. “Um, with a … spear?”

“Oh my gosh! My bad. How could I have forgotten to pack my spear for my beauty pageant?” Miss New Mexico snapped. The tray in her forehead shook.

“Because you probably left it in your competition’s back,” Miss Ohio snarked. Miss Montana high-fived her.

“Well, your evening gown looks like it was put together in the dark by a bunch of dyslexic sweatshop workers!” Miss Arkansas gave Miss Montana a small shove.

Miss Montana shoved back. “Oh really? Says the girl with flotation device boobs.”

“These are one hundred percent real!”

“So’s Santa.”

“At least my talent isn’t totally lame,” sniffed Miss Ohio.

Miss Arkansas laughed a loud HA! “Your talent? Are they letting people perform oral sex in these pageants now?”

Taylor clapped three times for attention. “Ladies! Ladies! My stars! That’s enough. Now. We all know Miss Arkansas’s girls are fake, Miss Ohio’s easier than making cereal, and Miss Montana’s dress is something my blind meemaw would wear to bingo night. And Miss New Mexico — aren’t you from the chill-out state? Maybe you can channel up some new-age-Whole-Foods-incense calm right about now, because we have a big job ahead called staying alive.”

Bray keeps her cast manageable by killing all the other pageant contestants off right at the beginning of the book. No one cares much. Apparently none of the survivors were friends with any of the dead girls. This conveniently allows Bray to keep the tone humorous while presenting us with walking, talking stereotypes who each take their turn getting up on a soapbox. There is Lesbian Girl, Deaf Girl, Trans Girl, Token Black Girl, Smart Feisty Jewish Feminist Girl, Immigrant Girl, Sexually Repressed Girl, Bulimic Girl, Perfectionist Control Freak Girl... you get the idea. Also, there is a Girl With a Tray Embedded In Her Forehead (yes, that's as much characterization as Miss New Mexico gets for the entire book) and the indistinguishable dumb blondes from Mississippi and Alabama... oh ho ho, Libba Bray, you are so clever and snarky.

I don't mean to say the messages aren't sincere or worthy. For what I imagine the author intended — a snarky encapsulation of the entire list of Social Justice 101 menu items — it serves its purpose, and for the young teen audience reading it that isn't already familiar with this stuff and getting their daily rage-fix on sf_drama, I suppose it may be thought-provoking and eye-opening. For what it's worth, Bray mostly chooses humor over didacticism, which makes Beauty Queens somewhat entertaining despite the Enormous Meaningful Message Mallet with which it whacks you over the head several times per very short chapter.


Please fill in the following information and return to Jessie Jane, Miss Teen Dream Pageant administrative assistant, before Monday. Remember, this is a chance for the judges and the audience to get to know YOU. So make it interesting and fun, but please be appropriate. And don’t forget to mention something you love about our sponsor, The Corporation!

Name: Sosie Simmons
State: Miss Illinois
Height: 5’ 6”
Weight: 118 lbs
Hair: Strawberry blond
Eyes: Green
Best Feature: My hands
Fun Facts About Me:

  • I am hearing impaired but that doesn’t stop me! I hear with my heart. Well, not really. Because, as anybody who is not a complete and total moron knows, the heart does not have ears. This is the kind of s**t they make disabled people say all the time so everybody’s all “okay” with us. Soooo annoying.
  • I perform with the non-hearing dance troupe Helen Keller-bration! And by “non-hearing” I mean deaf. Again, people, get over yourselves.
  • My dream is to have my own dance troupe and work with kids. For real.
  • Once, I saved my family from an earthquake because I could sense the seismic activity.
  • My favorite Corporation TV show is the makeover show, Pimp My Face (Ugly Stepsister). I love to watch the girls get all new faces and clothes. I love that part after all the bruising and swelling and stitches and pain when they see themselves in the mirror for the first time and they just cry and cry. It’s really sweet.
  • The thing that scares me most is being left out.
  • The thing I want most is a best friend.

Hey, did you get the part about "s**t they make disabled people say all the time"? Because Libba Bray is being totally subversive you guys!

The plot, such as it is, involves The Corporation (which apparently controls all commercial activity on the planet and thus allows Bray to snipe at every single aspect of modern capitalism and consumerism embodied in one convenient generic entity) having a secret base on the island where the girls crashed. It's inside a volcano. The Corporation's evil plan is to sell an explosive made from Lady 'Stache Off hair remover to a third-world dictator named MoMo who rules the Republic of ChaCha. And a bunch of pirate boys from a reality show called Captains Bodacious IV: Badder and More Bodaciouser arrive on the island. There is a giant snake and a beauty pageant with fireworks and explosions and a giant yacht and a volcanic eruption and it's just all deeply, deeply silly. This isn't so much a novel as a collection of snarkful scenes. Bray interleaves it with satirical footnotes, TV show parodies, and the surveys all the beauty queens had to fill out for the pageant.

Some of these are pretty funny, and yes, you can totally see the points she is making, and plenty of them deserve a good dose of snark.


The Corporation would like to apologize for the preceding pages. Of course, it’s not all right for girls to behave this way. Sexuality is not meant to be this way — an honest, consensual expression in which a girl might take an active role when she feels good and ready and not one minute before. No. Sexual desire is meant to sell soap. And cars. And beer. And religion.

The Corporation would like you to know that they are deeply regretful of this tawdry display. So often these books for our young people do not enforce a moral. The Corporation would like to take the time now to present this moral in the following montage.


1. The beauty queen made the first move and kissed the prince. “You know what I really like?” she whispered into his ear. Seconds later, he was sliding his mouth down the curve of her stomach. As he did, she looked up and saw the boulder teetering on the edge of the cliff above them.

“Oh my God! Look out for that boulder!”

“What bould —?”

The rock fell off and killed her dead. The prince was blinded in the accident, but was later healed by the love of a goodly, virginal maiden who suffered a lot first.

The End.

2. The savage warrior girl raised her spear. “I’m not going to keep quiet anymore! I’m going to say what I need to say and not worry about whether or not it upsets somebody or makes me seem unfeminine. Because you know what? I have opinions. I have feelings and needs, and I’m tired of feeling like I can’t voice them or I’ll get ridiculed or attacked!”

In the firelight, it was easy to see that she was the least attractive girl of the bunch and she probably smelled bad. Just then, a giant snake lurched out of the trees, bit her in two, and swallowed her down. And the other girls realized they should probably keep their mouths shut.

The End.

3. The girl felt feral and strong. She felt feral and strong because, of course, she had been contaminated with the alien virus, which made her not like a normal girl, but more like an alien. With alien desires. The kind that are not normal.

“I killed everybody I ever kissed,” the beautiful, long-legged girl with raven hair and full lips purred.

“I knew it. You’re an alien,” said her former best friend, the pale, bespectacled creature with the spectacular cleavage.

“Yes, I’m an alien and I still made cheerleader. And now I’m going to steal your boyfriend to prove girls can’t really be friends.”

“I sat back timidly when you torched my house, killed my parents, and ate my dog. But now you’re stealing my boyfriend? That’s a step too far!”

The bespectacled good girl with the nice rack plunged the jousting lance — constructed in Latin club — through the hot alien cheerleader’s stomach in a deeply Freudian display.

“Hasta la vista, bitch27.”

The End.

4. The wind blew the beauty queen’s skirt higher, exposing the curve of her butt beneath her panty. The humidity made her perspire in a sexy way, almost as if she’d been squirted with a mixture of water and baby oil by a makeup crew. She arched her back. “This jungle heat sure is all hot and stuff. Mind if I take off my top?”

“No! Let’s all take off our tops!” said the other girls.

“Mmm, if there’s anything I like better than taking off my clothes, it’s using new Tan-So-Right28 to keep my skin sweet and supple,” the beauty queen said. She reached behind a rock for the bottle of liquid tanner and spritzed herself. As it hit her skin in a slow-motion mist, she gasped in pleasure and bit her lip.

“Hot,” said a redhead in a thong.

“So hot,” they all agreed.

“Oops, I just dropped my bottle of tanner. I’ll just bend over slowly to pick it up,” said the beauty queen.

“That’s hot.”


“You know what else is hot?” said a nameless blonde as she put her arm around the one black girl.



“Totally. Well, not like real bisexuals who are just sort of your everyday people, but, like, the kind of bisexuals you see in magazines wearing nothing but body paint and kissing both boys and girls to promote a new single.”

“Totally, totally hot.”

Laughing and frolicking, the girls jumped into a bubbling island spring that was a lot like a hot tub, and then a rugged explorer type jumped in. The girls fawned all over him because he had used Stud Muffin Body Spray for Guys29.

The End.

The problem is, this shit is funny the first few times, and then becomes a constant unsubtle interruption in the story: "OH HEY DID YOU GET WHAT I AM TRYING TO DO HERE? IT IS FUNNY SO YOU WILL LAUGH AND BE ENTERTAINED WHILE I MAKE YOU THINK!" And it's delivered with the subtlety of an SNL sketch. Not one of the good ones.

Verdict: Snarky snarkety snark snark snarkingly. Beauty Queens is unsubtly, anviliciously funny, and you will probably agree with the messages and maybe even chuckle a little. But it's not a serious book; the plot does not wear even a G-string of plausibility, and it's more like reading someone's collection of humorous fanfic outtakes than a novel. It also assumes that the audience is denser than Miss Mississippi and must have every message reinforced, underlined, and highlighted, making it the sort of joke where half the time the teller ruins it by explaining the punchline. This is a book for people who like their socially-aware satire delivered liked anvils launched from a catapult.

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Tags: books, humor, reviews, young adult

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