After much thought and consideration, Ashley has recently begun a book group at the library for adults who enjoy reading YA. Naturally, she didn’t even need to ask me if I wanted to sign up.
And what is the first selection for this new book group devoted to adults who dig YA?
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.
A prime choice if ever I heard one!
It had been well over a year (maybe longer) since I had read BQ and all I could remember was that it was about girls on an island, Sarah Palin-esque and Kim Jong Il-type characters, and that I loved it. Beyond that, I was clueless.
So I reread it. And loved it even more than I did the first time. I wrote the Second Look of Beauty Queens after my first read through and after re-reading it, I feel the need to do a “third look” with a little bit more analysis.
I would like to say I was young, naive, and immature my first read-through, so I didn’t get the complexity and underlying messages. But… really? I was 25 when I read it, not 9. I had to wonder… maybe I can just relate to it a little more now than I did before.
For those of you who have read it and forgotten it (like I did), or who have never read it in the first place, BQ is the sordid story of the Miss Teen Dream contestants who survive their plane’s emergency landing on a deserted island.
First, let’s meet our Teen Dreamers:
- Adina, Miss New Hampshire – Thinks the Teen Dream Contest is full of crap, and is sick of girls catering to society’s expectations for women.
- Mary Lou, Miss Nebraska – The typical “nice girl” who wears a purity ring to help her reign in a very secret, very wild, (and very shameful) side of her.
- Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, Miss Texas – (you can’t not say her full name… and when you say it in your head, you say it with a southern accent) A Teen Dreamer through and through, TRKH lives by the Teen Dream Handbook and maintains the high standards and spirit of a Miss Teen Dreamer.
- Shanti, Miss Michigan – Shanti’s handler says everyone loves a nice assimilation story, so Shanti prides herself on the story of how her family came to America from India. Oh, and she can make popadam as her mother and grandmother taught her.
- Nicole, Miss Colorado – Rivaling Shanti for the minority vote and a whiz with first aid, Nicole is living the life her mother always dreamed for her. It just might not be the life she dreams for herself.
- Tiara, Miss Mississippi – The obligatory “dumb one” who is much smarter than she gets credit for. Also has mad interior decorating skillz and is sick of having to do her “sparkle hips.”
- Brittani, Miss Alabama – A tanned, blonde carbon copy of Tiara, who is very self conscious of her third nipple.
- Petra, Miss Rhode Island – Petra is harboring a very BIG secret, and is stuck on an island with a group of girls who will have to understand who she is now, and who she used to be.
- Jennifer, Miss Michigan – Also known as The Flint Avenger, Jennifer has known she was a lesbian since she was 10 years old. She ended up in the Miss Teen Dream competition after her guidance counselor recommended it as a part of a program for at risk girls. She loves comic books, is very mechanically talented, and her personal motto is “What Would Wonder Woman Do.”
- Sosie, Miss Illinois – Hard of hearing and proud organizer of Helen Keller-bration, a traveling dance troupe of non-hearing kids. Also can krump and do the robot like nobody’s business. She may or may not be a lesbian.
- Miss Montana, Miss Ohio, Miss Arkansas, and Miss New Mexico are part of a collective foursome. We don’t know much in detail about these girls, and the only distinguishing features among them seem to be that Miss New Mexico has a tray from the plane stuck in her forehead, and Miss Ohio is easier than a drunk Jersey Shore cast member.
So now that you know a little more about the main characters, it’s apparent they all have different ideals. There is a lot of shizzle going on here, people. But there are two that jump out at me more so than the others… Adina and Mary Lou’s stories were the one’s that struck a cord with me. I’ll try to avoid spoilers if I can, but if you haven’t read BQ yet, you might want to hold off on reading from this point on.
Adina is a true feminist who believes the Teen Dream Pageant objectifies young women. She abhors the idea of catering to female stereotypes, and the idea of living one’s life with the sole purpose of bagging and tagging a man makes her want to puke. She is fiercely independent, and is staunchly against society’s portrayal and treatment of women. (Let me just state that I’m not a feminist. I’m all about women’s rights and all, but I’m not the kind who won’t shave her legs because “society dictates we have to.”) But it makes me think… does Adina have a point? Men can walk around in baggy jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies. But if a girl walks around in anything other than skin tight jeans and make-up so thick it had to be applied with a garden trowel, she’s considered a lazy/scrubby/frumpy. Does society spend so much time telling girls how to dress, what to look like, how skinny to be, etc., that we’ve forgotten how to be ourselves?
Which brings me to Mary Lou. She wears her hat a little differently. She has a secret side, a “curse” that runs through generations of the women in her family. (*FYI: Spoilers are definitely ahead.*) They’re known as Wild Girls and are filled with a lust for, well, lust. While on the island, Mary Lou is able to shed the preconceived notion she has of herself and transitions from Purity Queen to Wild Child. One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Mary Lou observes, “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.” Mary Lou’s story is very empowering in the sense that it lets girls know that it’s ok to be who you want to be. You shouldn’t have to hide who you are or something about yourself just because society would frown on it. But on the other hand, especially in Mary Lou’s circumstances, is that the same as giving girls (and boys… I’m not one to exclude anybody) an excuse to act slutty and justify it by saying, “well, that’s just who she/he is.”
With a lively cast of characters with a variety of clashing personalities, there’s no way this book isn’t going to be entertaining, especially when you factor in Libba Bray’s incredible gift for writing. But in addition to being satirical and laugh-out-loud funny, it also makes readers think about our society and its standards as a whole. Granted, I’ve read several reviews of people who hated this book. I get and respect that. This genre certainly isn’t for everyone. And other reviewers are certainly entitled to their opinion, just like I’m entitled to my opinion that BQ is a bit absurd, a bit inspiring, and a whole lotta brilliant. If you read it as a satire and understand it as such, than you’re guaranteed to get a lot more out of it.
Beauty Queens is not about dumb girls who like glitter and mascara, nor is it just a survival story. I’m not sure if it can be called a coming-of-age story either. More accurately, it’s a novel about becoming.
Just ask Miss Nebraska.
So, ready for today’s Pop Quiz question? Does Beauty Queens send a positive, empowering message to girls about individuality and not giving in to society’s standards? Or is it just a silly, entertaining novel that overly exaggerates the state of today’s culture? What do you think? (And no, “YOLO” is not an acceptable answer.)