Review of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
by Libba Bray
This might be one of those books where I have had it on my to-read list almost since it came out … eleven years ago. Finally got around to reading it! Beauty Queens is a rollicking young-adult satire of reality television, beauty pageantry, and the corporate hostile takeover of feminism. Libba Bray brings a lot of humour and sweetness to these pages. I enjoyed it. Yet I also think it has a lot of limitations, some due to its age, most due to its construction.
The fifty contestants for Miss Team Dream crash land on a deserted island (or is it?). At first, the challenge seems to be surviving long enough to be rescued—although if some Teen Dreamers have their way, they will also somehow practise for the pageant at the same time. As the days pass with no rescue, however, strange events reveal that maybe these girls aren’t alone on this island. They’ll need more than the skills they profess for the talent part of the competition to survive, escape, and reveal the Corporation’s treachery to the world.
Reading this book a decade after its publication leaves me reflecting on how much the world has changed since Bray wrote at the start of the 2010s. Beauty Queens is ultimately very much a rah-rah book of female empowerment (and I mean this in a good way). It explicitly calls out and questions harmful beauty standards and ideas of feminine comportment that are baked into beauty pageantry. Many of the girls in this book are, at the beginning of the story, what we might describe as “shallow.” Thanks to a couple slightly more aware contestants, along with the pressures to survive on this island, the girls gradually come to understand the value of independence and the toxicity of what Miss Teen Dream represents.
I respect, however, that Bray also takes the time to reassure us that femininity and the modern tools associated with it are not, per se, bad. In this way the book harnesses the political brashness of second-wave feminism while also retaining much more of the intersectionality and post-modernism of third-wave feminism. Bray’s feminism is also trans-inclusive (more on that in a moment) and anti-capitalist. Though the nominal enemy of this book is the Corporation, the arguable leader of this antagonistic force is actually another women. In this way, Bray reminds us that “leaning in” is not the answer: women can reinforce patriarchy as much as other genders, especially if they think it serves their own purposes.
Still, this book definitely feels a decade old. It predates the rising awareness among white moderates and progressives of the vicious modern racism and police brutality that exists within the United States (and here in Canada)—from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to George Floyd and the too-many names in between that marked the 2010s as a time of increased visibility of violence against Black people. Beauty Queens certainly engages in a discussion of racism and intersectional feminism, such as it can, but it feels out of place against the backdrop of the last decade.
This holds true for Bray’s portrayal of a transgender character as well. Indeed, Bray goes out of her way to make sure the cast is as diverse as possible, including a Deaf girl, Black and brown girls, a lesbian girl, etc. I really appreciate this. I’m going to focus my critique on Petra, as I am also trans, whereas it is harder for me to discuss how the others’ identities are portrayed. I’ve really mulled over how I feel about Petra. On the one hand, it was just nice to be included in an overwhelmingly positive way in a book from 2011. On the other hand, there is a clumsiness to how Bray writes Petra. It makes me wonder if this book had a sensitivity reader all the way back then.
To summarize my thoughts: I appreciate how Bray presents different reactions when the other girls find out that Petra is trans. Forcibly outing her is not cool, of course, though I understand how one can argue it would be quite realistic in this setting. I don’t have a problem with how some of the girls react in transphobic ways; they learned it as a part of their upbringing, and this book is all about unlearning harmful, internalized bullshit. Indeed, Bray just wants to show us that there is no One True Girl, and trans acceptance is a part of that.
But then we have a scene where Petra pees on a guy’s leg to clean out a jellyfish sting (which, by the way, is a myth)—because she has a penis and can pee standing up, get it? It’s just a very weird scene overall. Beyond that, the portrayal of Petra’s transition is very 2011 in its focus on medical transition—she’s hoping to win the contest so she can afford gender confirmation surgery—and very little discussion of the social reality of being transfeminine. This is a bit hard to read in a year where conservative media has become ever bolder in focusing on transmedicalism as a way to Other trans people. That’s not Bray’s fault, of course. Nevertheless, I think Petra’s portrayal (along with some other clunkiness in the portrayals of the characters of colour) highlights how a well-meaning author trying to do diversity can come up short.
In a similar way, I wish I could have been more entertained by the satire. It’s just layered on so thick. I understand that YA sometimes needs to be brasher because of the age of its audience. But the result is oddly jarring. There are inane uses of PowerPoint, half-hearted antagonist characters, and a madman dictator who feels like he would be played by Sacha Baron Cohen in a way that has you going, “Umm, this is kinda racist, isn’t it?” The cohesiveness of the plot in the final act feels more like a stage play than a novel, with loose ends getting too neatly tied up. The satire verges more on farce, which I think undermines its teeth.
All of this being said, please don’t get the impression I’m criticizing this book simply for being a decade old now. But I think it is important to consider how we react to a book in the present of our reading it, and my reaction to Beauty Queens is, “This is a hot mess, and I love parts of it, but so much of it doesn’t gel.” Would I have liked it more ten years ago? Probably, in the same way that subsequent rewatches of comedies from ten years ago have left me cold, and the same way that ten years ago I was far, far fonder of The Hunger Games than I am now. We move on, and as we grow, the media of our past doesn’t always grow with us.
This is a good and entertaining book, especially for teenage girls. But it’s also messy and flawed. You know what was also really flawed? Lord of the Flies, yet it still gets taught in high schools like it’s the real shit. I can say with confidence that Beauty Queens is, if it is anything, far superior to that “classic” in every possible measure. So make of that what you will.