Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray


The story? A plane full of teen beauty pageant contestants crashes on a 'deserted' island, and hijinks ensue. (It has been billed as Lost meets Clueless meets Lord of the Flies.) The story itself is interspersed with "commercial breaks", "Fun Fact" sheets about the various contestants, words from your Sponsor, and "classified" updates on secret shenanigans elsewhere on the island. 

Along the way, Bray pokes fun at American pop culture (boy bands! reality show pirates! Betsy Ross in her underpants!), consumerism, corporate greed, U.S. foreign policy, celebrity politicians, the beauty product industry ("There's nothing wrong with you that can't be fixed"), gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and all sorts of other Americanisms that she finds ridiculous. The book is entertaining, and sometimes downright amusing. Bray's fake reality shows and beauty products are scarily believable, and I laughed out loud when Miss Ohio figures out how to cook fish on a sun-warmed piece of sheet metal and quips "I'm from the Buckeye State. We are serious about our tailgating parties. I can turn anything into a grill."
Libba Bray tells her tale with a good deal of humor, that's for sure. I never really connected with the characters, though--they all seemed rather two-dimensional. Even the quirks bestowed upon them felt . . . artificial. Deliberate. As a send-up of the pageant lifestyle, though, it is definitely entertaining.  Good, campy fun.

Now for the bad news. The book is chock full of YA commonplaces ranging from the fairly innocuous "parents sometimes have unreasonable expectations", "be true to yourself", and "follow your dreams" to the much more worrisome "adults don't understand", "rules are bad and intended only to oppress", "do what you want", "any sexual impulse should be indulged and anyone who says otherwise hates women", etc. These themes and ideas will likely resonate with young readers, but Bray's conclusions are troubling, as she seems to be encouraging young women to wholly eschew adult counsel and make decisions based solely on desire. 

Several of the girls have sexual or romantic encounters on the island, none of which are founded on anything resembling commitment. Instead, they are more than willing to have sex with anyone who seems to really "understand" or "accept" them--both good things, to be sure, but hardly sufficient basis for a sexual relationship, especially at such a young age and under such emotionally heightened circumstances. Bray introduces lots of sexual options, as well--the band of 12 surviving contestants includes a lesbian, a bisexual, a pre-op transsexual, and a girl Bray characterizes as a "wild child" because she is comfortable enough with herself to be sexually assertive.  Maybe I'm just an old fuddy duddy, but while I enjoyed the story, I'm not sure I would recommend it to more impressionable readers.

Bottom line: Bray does fine when she's just on a lark, mocking American culture and telling a ridiculous, over-the-top story. It's when she tries to add substance to that story--make it "about" something, give it a "message"--that it starts to fall flat.

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