En route to the Miss Teen Dream pageant hosted by The Corporation, the plane carrying all 50 aspiring beauty queens goes down. The thirteen survivors are stranded on a deserted island, where they struggle to survive until they can be rescued. As their hopes and supplies dwindle, they uncover a nefarious plot involving arms dealing with Kim Jung Il-like dictator MoMo and realize they must become allies instead of competitors in order to save themselves.
Libby Bray’s Beauty Queens is as if the bizarre lovechild of Miss Congeniality and Lord of the Flies starred in the newly infamous The Interview, with pirates, evil corporations, and product placement thrown in for good measure. Don’t let that steer you clear though – this was simultaneously one of the funniest and most feminist books I’ve read.
I don’t want to spoil it too much but Miss New Hampshire is an undercover pageant hater out for an expose, Miss Texas is neurotically focused on the crown, plus there is at least one lesbian, two minorities, and a dumb blonde. While they all come across as one-note and shallow in the beginning, Bray’s point is to expose these characters beyond the stereotypes and liberate them from the confines of beauty and perfection that society imposes on women. At first, it’s difficult to keep track of the girls between the interchangeable usage of their names and states, but they do become unique individuals and it is very empowering once they begin to see themselves and their competitors as such.
The book’s formatting as a televised pageant broadcast is genius, complete with the commercial breaks that promote The Corporation’s other ventures and products while criticizing the media and materialism. One of my favorite parts was the footnotes scattered throughout the text, which often contained cheeky background info or asides from the corporation. I also enjoyed the thinly-veiled allusions to real people, like J.T. Woodland as Justin Timberlake and Ladybird as Sarah Palin. I’ve never read such a humorous take on America’s domineering and unethical relationship with developing nations as Bray’s discussion of arms dealing with evil dictator MoMo, a situation that resembles our former relationship with the likes of Muammar al-Qaddafi and even the early Taliban movement.
The middle section of the story was a little weak since the girl’s mostly continue to develop and are sidetracked by the romantic pirate interlude, which admittedly had it’s own point about teen relationships. The amazing climactic action (pagentry! explosions! man-eating snake!) did make up for it at least. However, I wish the book had ended with the girls had sailing off into the sunset victorious. Instead, we were treated to a weak ending of the girls’ future reunion, but seeing as the whole story could’ve been a made-for-TV movie, it seemed like a conscious decision to have such a cheesy epilogue.
As a satire of modern society, this books hits all the right notes if heavy-handedly. The seemingly-ridiculous premise shockingly works well to expose deep, sensitive issues, such as transgender transitions, racism, misogyny, and the mean girl culture. Quite different from Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy or The Diviners, this is nevertheless an excellent humorous beach read that will also give teens something to think about.