Book Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

5/5 stars

I have not read a book for pleasure since 9B (9th grade, second semester, 2012), but recently, I was asked to choose three books for the local library. I did not want to introduce anyone to sexist, traditional books, so I looked for teen feminist books. On a Saturday in March, I found The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, which I read in 6 hours. (My next book review will be on that.) The following Tuesday, I checked out Beauty Queens by Libba Bray and finished it two days later.

Spoiler Alert.
Sexism, racism, capitalism: three mainstream institutions that are criticized in this novel. The book exemplifies intersectional feminism, with the exception of distinguishing a section of Girl Con as “Comic Nerds with Ovaries” and calling Petra a “transwoman” as opposed to trans woman. Though this decision does not affect me in any way, shape, or form, I could forgive those mistakes, for Bray continues to explore transgender and gender role issues through male to female transgender Petra and her pirate boyfriend’s love of heels, among other things. Ableism is another topic that is somewhat mentioned through the eyes of a deaf beauty queen.

Contrary to popular belief, the women in this gender bent version of Lord of the Flies did not kill each other within the first 2 days or any days at all. Yes, there was competition, but I think we have established that competition is gender neutral. There is a huge theme of sorority (as opposed to the male fraternity) and self-realization. The women establish a rule outlawing the word “sorry” under any circumstances and decide to accept their sexuality.

Racism absolutely plays a huge part of this story. The Corporation exploits the island of indigenous Tane Ngata and somehow removed or relocated most of his people. Beauty queens Nicole and Shanti (Black and Indian, respectively) are the only women of color in the pageant, so they feel extra competitive because judges typically allow one POC in the top 5. Bray acknowledges their cultures and struggles such as illustrating Nicole making an ewe drum and describing Shanti’s false background to hide being “too ethnic”.

Consumerism and corporation politics are also a major theme. The story is frequently interrupted with “commercial breaks” which advertise products to perpetuate sexist standards such as hairless lips, and other controversial products are mentioned, such as skin bleach. Along with these products, the Corporation owns most TV shows (including the pageant), the plane that crashed, and boy bands like Boyz Will B Boyz who sing “Let Me Shave Your Legs Tonight, Girl”. This is a reflection on monopolies like Comcast and other humongous corporations. Additionally, the Corporation paid off the government to prevent them from searching this island where they capitalize on most of the resources (such as oil).
And in case you were hoping for a slight nod to corporations in foreign politics, the Corporation almost sells American military weapons to the cruel tyrant of the Republic of ChaCha until presidential candidate Ladybird Hope decides to perform a televised terrorist attack on the Beauty Queens. Personally, I think it was Bray’s implication of BUSH DID 9/11.

As far as the characters go, my favorite was Adina Greenberg, sarcastic, Jewish, feminist journalist who enjoys punk rock and performs in a band. I think she was a reflection of Gloria Steinem, who was also a Jewish journalist and feminist leader of the 1960s Women’s Liberation. Both people have mothers who struggled to find happiness in themselves without men, have no interest in marriage (Steinem married David Bale much later in her life, however), and go undercover in sexist coordinated events (Adina planned to write about beauty pageants, Steinem wrote “I Was a Playboy Bunny”.) Whether it is Adina or Steinem, I can wholly relate.

Additionally, Adina’s relationship with Duff fortifies my argument that pretty boys cannot be trusted.

Other characters include Taylor Krystal Rene Hawkins (Miss Texas who attends George Walker Bush High School and has a membership in Femmes and Firearms), two queens named Caitlin Ashley/Ashlee, Jennifer who is lesbian, Sosie who is deaf from a virus and questions her sexuality, Tiara who is the embodiment of the female stereotype (extremely “feminine” and not very educated), Nicole, Petra, and Shanti (mentioned earlier), Mary Lou who befriends Adina and explores her sexuality (including masturbation), and others who I cannot remember.

This book was entirely sarcastic and questioned everything that occurs in America. I loved it, and I hope I get the same experience with another book in the future.

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