Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

I think that sometimes it happens when you re-read a book or watch a movie that you’ve loved for so long, but you’ve maybe never exactly pin-pointed why, and realize that it has totally informed a lot of your political and social perspective. When I graduated with a Women’s Studies minor I was spending basically the first time relaxing after a lot of school, and was watching movies on cable TV. And I saw this one, All I Wanna Do (um, with Kristen Dunst, actually), that I had loved since I was in middle school, and after watching it I thought, “Oh. Women’s Studies minor. That makes sense.” Another one of those was Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series: “Women’s Studies. Feminism. Check, and check.” Although the movie and the book were both fiction, at their heart they passed on strong female characters and ideas.

It’s a really nice middle point whenever pop culture – literature, movies, music – actually does connect with feminism, because it’s sooooooo unfortunately rare. And it forms this sort of instant recognition and almost validation, through the real world that you get right out of its fictional one.

So. Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. The only reason it took me as long as it did to pick this one up was because it’s still in hardcover. Luckily, I got it for Christmas this year (thanks, Mom!) and I seriously devoured it from last night until late last night.

The premise of Beauty Queens, from Bray’s acknowledgments, “A plane full of Beauty Queens crashes on a deserted island. And….GO!” The parallel to Lord of the Flies is immediately apparent, especially with the background that there is a war going on (Lord of the Flies was set against the background of WWII). But the idea of what happens when you do introduce female characters to a situation like Lord of the Flies, that traditionally male-centric story, is what makes this novel so engaging. As the characters put it themselves:

“I’ve been thinking about that book about the boys who crash on the island,” Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.
Lord of the Flies. What about it?”
“You know how you said it wasn’t a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if there had been girls?”
Mary Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. “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.”

Still, the parallel to Lord of the Flies is hardly even a jumping-off point for this book. What Bray creates is entirely her own, something – like Going Bovine – that has the ability to break through generic boundaries. Bray returns to the same criticism of pop culture that made Going Bovine so great, but she takes it to the next level. Here, reality television shows have gone out of control, The Corporation is in control of everything, and a narrow beauty standard has been clearly defined, and Bray’s biting criticism of these topics (and more) is paired with humor. This novel includes the cast of Captains Bodacious IV: Badder and More Bodaciouser!, a teen pop sensation called Boyz Will B Boyz (whose single “Safe Tween Crush” includes the lyrics, “Wanna rock you girl, with a butterfly tunic. / No, I’m not gay, I’m just your emo eunuch. /), and “commercial breaks” from the story that include commercials for beauty products, television shows, and movies (such as WEDDING DAY 3: THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM:

What if Mr. Wrong is the best I’m going to get?

(patting her hand)
Love means making sacrifices. I know these things. I’m old.)

And under all of these layers – great story, parallel to a canonical novel, political, social, and pop culture critique, and relatable, real, incredible characters – is a focus on feminism and what it’s like to grow up as a teenage girl in contemporary culture. Sometimes these are in-depth, and other times they are off the cusp, such as when Petra explains,

“I sewed a banner to catch the attention of planes. You can’t see it now because they took it down.”
Adina turned to the camera with an amused-but-confused expression. “Why?”
“It had the word bitches in it, which is perfectly fine to use if you’re a rapper or a director making a movie about career women, but not if you’re a teen girl talking about her homies.”

This is already the longest review I’ve written, and I feel like I haven’t even begun to get at what this book is! Out of all of the reviews so far, this is the first that gets an all capslocks, “PLEASE READ BEAUTY QUEENS BY LIBBA BRAY. IT IS REALLY THE BEST THING EVER.”

I can just imagine how engaging it would be to read a book like this in high school, either instead of Lord of the Flies or alongside it. Canonical books like Lord of the Flies are still taught (my sixteen-year-old sister just did it this past semester in high school), but more contemporary novels like Beauty Queens still aren’t really across the board – they’re left out of curriculum to teach novels written sixty years ago. It’s important also that those novels are still circulated in schools, but Beauty Queens is that new kind of version of canonical novel, like so many other new young adult novels. It seems like a missed opportunity to stay with just Lord of the Flies (which, you know, doesn’t have a single female character), or other such canonical novels, when something like Beauty Queens has something for every student, female or male.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s really the first novel I’ve ever read that I’m anxious to actually start reading again, right from the beginning, and the ability for Bray to be able to tell a great story while also letting me do the whole, “wow, these are really the things I believe in,” is just incredible. 

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