I’ve been meaning to read Beauty Queens for a couple of years. The cover is amazing, it’s edited by David Levithan, and it sounded right up my alley. I mean, a plane full of teen beauty queens crashes on a deserted island on their way to the Miss Teen Dream pageant. Sounds like a brilliant satirical setup, right? And it is; this book pokes fun at ditziness, glitziness, and consumerism left and right. But it’s also deep, exploring many issues of femininity, gender, sexuality, and confidence that society often avoids like the plague. “If something’s not broken,” people reason, “why fix it?” But the way women are viewed is broken, and although it’s on the road to repair, it still needs adjusting. And this book points that out in an fast-paced yet deeply moving way. Plus, it’s funny. I laughed so hard at this book that I was afraid of waking my husband. (I often read in bed after he’s fallen asleep, and I laughed so bed-shakingly often that it’s a wonder he didn’t wake up.)
The girls on the island work their butts off to survive in an inhospitable environment, and they create a village that the folks on Lost would be proud of. All of their pageant extracurriculars come in handy, and they work together as a team to build homes, find food, and send messages for help. The Corporation, the pageant’s…well…corporate sponsor, claims to be looking for the girls with all the resources available to them. But is the girls’ rescue really in their best financial interests? You’ll see.
Most of the book’s scenes take place on the island, but there are commercial breaks as well, which are over-the-top ridiculous (and hilariously funny!), yet sadly close to the commercials we see aired today. This book is a reflection of our society that’s exaggerated just enough for the reader to feel comfortable reading it and finding flaws in it while not feeling directly attacked. (Although, as I mentioned earlier, maybe there are a couple of things that could use to be attacked…)
Some of my favorite parts of this book were the girls’ bonding, chatting and laughing together and growing into a community of support. (Tiara was probably my favorite; she was funny and sweet and deeper than you’d expect.) But I also loved the girls’ side conversations about…well…just being a girl. Like this discussion of Lord of the Flies:
“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? … 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.”
There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.
They were becoming.
Passages like this are rare in today’s books. And, to be honest, a lot of times the cynic in me thinks “empowerment” is a silly notion, because you shouldn’t really need affirmations from other people to feel good about yourself. But this book made me feel good about being a girl — a smart, capable girl at that — in a way that literature doesn’t usually do.
All in all: One of the best books I’ve ever read. Seriously.
I’ll leave you with this heartbreaking lesson from one of the girls, revealing what she learned from her time on the island:
I love myself. They make it so hard for us to love ourselves.
Maybe we all need to drown out society’s noise and love ourselves a little bit more.