By Bailey Shoemaker Richards
One of the most frustrating things about being engaged with media as a viewer is trying to find those sources that aren’t problematic for young women, and this includes books. Although there is no dearth of reading material for young women, the fandom around books like the Twilight series makes me shudder: its celebration of an abusive relationship and portrayal of a passive female narrator as a role model are not the messages I want to see young women absorbing. Fortunately, there are numerous authors who celebrate women and write stories that are not only entertaining but also valuable for any young feminist to add to a library.
When my little sister won a contest for her essay about why she is a beauty queen and received a copy of Beauty Queens, I figured there had to be something good going on with the book. My sister’s essay was about how she overcame her desire to become popular in pursuit of finding herself, so I knew that Beauty Queens had to have a good message as well. (Beware, the rest of this review will contain some book spoilers!)
Libba Bray, already well known for A Great and Terrible Beauty, has published another stunning book. I have to admit that I was nervous when I started reading Beauty Queens, because shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and the narrow beauty standards espoused by traditional pageants have soured my opinion of pageantry. My nervousness soon abated, however, as Bray’s brilliant writing sucked me in.
Beauty Queens is the story of a group of young women who thought they were going to a tropical island for the remainder of their pageant; instead, their airplane crashes on an apparently deserted island. The small group of survivors has to make do with what they can, and hope that help will arrive.
The girls seem like a stereotypically catty bunch of pageant girls at the beginning of the book, but their differences and secrets rapidly appear, and that is where its true strength lies. Beauty Queens revolves around the idea that even a seemingly homogeneous group like these contestants contains girls who individuals to their cores. As the story progresses, the girls start to challenge the ideals of the pageant they once held as their gold standard, along with harmful tropes of race, sexuality and gender.
Bray manages to incorporate these highly political issues without derailing the story. Petra, the former singing sensation, is a MTF (male to female) transgender contestant who helps the other girls deal with their confusion around her identity and finds love when a group of reality TV pirates arrive on the island. Nicole and Shanti, the only two surviving contestants of color, originally antagonize one another based on the pageant’s history of only having one non-white top contestant (and only the runner-up, at that) before realizing that their relationship could be one of mutual cooperation and deep friendship. Jennifer comes out as a lesbian to the group and forms a relationship with Sosie, who is deaf and exploring her sexuality. Mary Lou breaks free of her repressive past, embracing her body and herself for the first time in her life.
Although the girls start out feeling competitive, bitter and divided, their shared humanity and the secrets they reveal to one another form a bond of sisterhood that nothing can break by the end of the story. That becomes the central message of Beauty Queens, and it’s a message that is sorely lacking in most media: our fellow girls and women are our sisters and our best allies, no matter what differences we might initially see.
All of these revelations take place within a few hundred pages – and there are many more besides. Bray manages to weave these fantastically intersectional stories into a novel that includes controlling reality-TV network advertising, biting political commentary and an evil lair hidden in a volcano – as if there weren’t already enough reasons to read the book.