Book Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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.

I read this book back when it first came out and I still really love it. However, only some things still hold up for me.

Let’s start with the good things I love about it. I know that for a lot of people, Bray’s over-the-top satire and stereotypes can be a little grating, but I really love it. It’s a super scathing look at our society in general, but especially our society’s ideas about femininity and girlhood. I loved it when I was 20, and I love it now.

I think I can credit this book with my first step to calling myself a feminist and when I first started to realize that not being like other girls was total BS. And I related to Adina so much when I read this years ago, and I found myself yelling at her the way that I yell at past me. I love her journey with unlearning internalized misogyny (and I totally relate too much to hating her mom for jumping to relationship to relationship (but that’s another story)).

What I love most about this, is that everyone learns something about themselves AND others. We all have misconceptions about ourselves and each other, but as women (especially young women) we’re taught to see each other as competition and this book hyper focuses on that. Overall, I think the heavy-handedness of the book works really well and it’s just overly ridiculous and funny and brilliant.

But there are two things that I don’t really like about it, Petra’s forced outing and the back and forth of Jennifer and Sosie’s relationship. Luckily, in these circumstances of fiction, nothing goes wrong too wrong with outing Petra. But in the real world, being forcibly outed as a trans person can be incredibly traumatic AND dangerous. In this situation of a deserted island there are no consequences for the girls that out Petra and they all learn something valuable from knowing a trans person, which is really just gross and that shouldn’t be what we’re teaching young girls.

Jennifer and Sosie’s friendship turned relationship turned friendship is really bothersome to me because, for one, Sosie doesn’t actually say that she’s bisexual, and two, it paints the stereotype that bisexual people don’t know what they want. Jennifer is a lesbian; she knows she likes girls and she went for the girl. Sosie, on the other hand, doesn’t know for sure what her sexuality is and that’s fine! It’s okay to be figuring out your sexuality, but with making Sosie the one that goes back and forth about her feelings for Jennifer, it perpetuates the stereotype the bisexual people are just confused and don’t know what they want and they’ll just leave you and that’s not okay.

So as much as I love Libba Bray, and as much as I do love this book, I can’t give it more than 3 bards.

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