First, I need to spend a moment obsessing over this cover design. My edition is two-toned: pink down one half, red down the other. The “so” in the title is superimposed over a pair of lips, with the lipstick smeared on the right. The lips themselves are actually a cutout, and when you open the front cover, the page beneath is all blue and reads, “You should be so angry”—a stark contrast to the book’s title, You Could Be So Pretty. And what can I say? Holly Bourne does it again.
Belle and Joni are the same age and competing for the Scholarship—beyond that, they have nothing in common. Belle follows the Doctrine. She applies her Mask every morning, sweats daily in Body Prayer, and generally does her best to look pretty. Joni, on the other hand, has embraced the life of an Objectionable. She doesn’t put on a Mask, barely washes her hair even, and she doesn’t care for Doctrine. It’s her choice, of course—every woman is free to choose whether or not to follow Doctrine. But that doesn’t stop people from looking down on Joni, her mother, and those like her. That is, until Belle’s perfect Pretty life starts falling apart around her. As she spends more time around Joni, she starts to wonder if Doctrine is as shiny and unimpeachable as it seems.
I had so many complicated feelings while reading this. I couldn’t put it down. I also wanted to throw it across the room.
See, I understand what Bourne is trying to do here, and I’m mostly on board. I really, really hate to say this given how many of them were TERFy and intersectionality in general was not their strong suit, but the second-wave feminists had a lot of excellent points that feel startlingly relevant these days. Feminism in popular discourse has collapsed under the weight of the rhetoric of “choice,” with the implication being that all the women and girls out there who lean hard into heavy makeup, cosmetic procedures, and emulating a pornified version of sexuality are doing so out of an irreproachable sense of individual freedom. Women and girls choose to be slutty, you see. It’s empowering.
Bourne’s disdain for this line, for the patriarchal control that it conceals, is palpable throughout You Could Be So Pretty. Feminism, she charges, has lost the anger that was at its core, and she wants to reawaken that fire and help it burn brighter within young women and girls.
Now, on the surface, the dystopian allegory Bourne uses to achieve this mission feels facile. The overuse of proper nouns—Mask, Pretty, Objectionable, Invisible, etc.—and the highly simplified world in which these girls exist gives the book a kind of glossiness that peels as you read and makes it feel … cheap. I can see how some readers, particularly those like myself who have steeped ourselves in decades of feminism and young adult literature, might look at this book and think, “This is too on the nose. Too simplified. There’s nothing here.”
Take, for example, the inciting incident of the book—Belle is harassed and almost abducted by a man who wants to give her a ride to school because she’s hot. Joni’s intervention allows them to escape, with some difficulty thanks to Belle’s impractical footwear. The scene is viscerally terrifying and no doubt familiar, in one permutation or another, to a majority of women readers. So familiar that one might wonder if the messaging her is too obvious.
Yet I tried my best to take a step back and put myself in the shoes of a younger reader, a teenage girl in our current era of ubiquitous porn, social media likes and comments and filters, and algorithmic content. I live in this world yet am not of this world, certainly didn’t grow up in this world, and it behoves me to consider how a younger denizen of that world would come to You Could Be So Pretty and its central critique of choice feminism.
Dystopian allegories are valuable for how they allow us to end-run the complexity of the real world. One of the reasons being feminist in our world is so complicated is that the world itself is complicated. Much as one tries to do one’s best for the environment, for animals, for others, the systems in which we are trapped make it difficult to be conscientious, to be “pure.” Stripping that away in favour of a world of school and Education, of rankings and validation, of Ceremonies, might feel simplistic to those of us caught up in the daily grind of this world. Yet it allows Bourne a much more versatile canvas for the conversation she wants to have on the page. As such, Bourne harnesses dystopia effectively in my opinion.
This is also very much a book that is about the imperfection of revolution. Joni most notably embodies this trait. What I love most about Joni is not that she’s “woke” but that she is still young and learning about nuance. Joni’s interactions with her mother are powerful and important, for they reveal how Joni’s passion has yet to develop into the wisdom that comes with experience. In a notable scene, Joni explains how she was confused that her mother makes beauty products available to the women who visit their little feminist shelter. Joni, having been raised by her mother to believe that these products are anathema, doesn’t understand why her mother would willingly give them out to women she’s trying to shake out of Doctrine. Yet Joni’s mother sees the bigger picture, understands that these women need the comfort of the familiar, understands that it’s more complicated.
This entire “deprogramming” aspect of the book is compelling, for it really does make a strong argument that the beauty-industrial complex is a cult. Joni’s mission to “awaken” Belle, while cute and very naïvely feminist at times, speaks to the strength of patriarchy’s grip on our minds and souls. It isn’t that Belle can’t see how fucked up her life is, from the constant public exposure to porn to the way she embraces disordered eating to stay fit. But she is in a cult, and when you are in a cult, it’s hard to recognize that fucked up means you should get out.
All of this is to say, every moment in this book hits hard. It’s going to be trite and predictable for a lot of older, ardently feminist readers, but I don’t think that should be a turn-off. I think it’s important to meet this book where it is. It’s an awakening of sorts for readers, a primer, yes, but it is also a deep and heartfelt attempt to hold a mirror up to our world and say, “Hey, this is messed up.” And if that isn’t the purpose of dystopia or allegory, I don’t know what is.
Now, of course, this book has limitations. I’d love to declare this book the YA feminist work of a generation, but I can’t be that absolutist. For one, this book is very much grounded in white and Western ideas about feminism, patriarchy, and beauty standards. The experiences and anxieties reflected here are largely those of white, cis, able-bodied women. Although Bourne makes some attempts to be intersectional, these generally don’t work very well.
First, let’s talk about the gender binary. Trans and gender-nonconforming people are largely absent from this book. To be fair, Bourne tries to be inclusive. At one point, an authority figure uses the phrase “female-identifying students,” and later in the novel, there is a brief appearance of a trans girl. I really do appreciate this inclusion, but I also see it as a band-aid, for I don’t believe that Doctrine is compatible with the existence of trans women and girls. Patriarchy is inherently transphobic, so by hacking the dystopia to be trans-inclusive, Bourne ironically misses the mark on intersectionality. I would have rather she explored the idea that Doctrine suppresses trans people entirely as another dimension of why it must be resisted.
A similar problem exists with race. Again, Bourne is clearly aware of this issue: Vanessa, Belle’s “best friend,” is highly melanated. The book emphasizes how Vanessa’s darker skin makes it more challenging for her to be perceived as Pretty, a nod to the misogynoir that Black women face in a world where beauty standards are aggressively white and Eurocentric. So kudos to Bourne for that. Again, though, it’s insufficient and papers over the complexities that racism introduces to critiques of patriarchy.
Am I nitpicking? After all, Bourne is clearly writing this allegory based on her experience as a white cis woman. Maybe she feels like it isn’t her place to speak to the experience of trans women or women of colour. Fair enough. Indeed, no single book can be the universal feminist book, and I would never expect You Could Be So Pretty to be everything for everyone.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that, as a trans woman, I had a hard time seeing myself in either Belle or Joni at points. The way this book engages with patriarchal ideas of femininity does not always resonate with my own relationship to femininity. That’s OK. However, I can’t lie—it also feels disappointing that in 2023, our feminist primers and manifestos continue to flatten feminism down to something that is most recognizable and most relatable to white cis women and girls.
As I said above, this is a limitation of You Could Be So Pretty. I want to be critical of this book precisely because I liked it so much, believe i its themes so much. So don’t let my critique dissuade you from picking up this book, for it is powerful and raw and beautiful in its own, terrifying kind of way. Holly Bourne remains one of my favourite feminist novelists. She is just so good at poking holes in patriarchy and at creating great characters while doing it. You Could Be So Pretty is a striking evolution in her style versus some of her earlier forays into feminist YA, demonstrating that she still has plenty more stories to tell and battles to win. I hope this book awakens more than a few younger people and helps them push back against the absurdity that is the doctrine in our own world. I don’t mind being Pretty sometimes—but I definitely want us to be more Objectionable all of the time. Well-behaved women don’t make history.