Okay, so before I begin, I have to say that I really wanted to like this book, and that I think this book has a lot of potential. However, there were a few stylistic issues that I could not overcome (too many capslocks, too many “likes” and “alls” and things that make me feel like I’m totally out of touch with your average teenager, though it’s only been a couple of years since I’ve been one myself). If the author sounds familiar, it’s because she wrote the Gemma Doyle trilogy (the first book being A Great and Terrible Beauty). Unfortunately, I didn’t like those books, despite a myriad of my like-minded friends telling me that I’d love it. Anyway, I think that the issues that Beauty Queens tackles are really good, and though I couldn’t make it through all of it, I thought it deserved a review based on sheer audacity of topic and interesting characters.
The book revolves around five or so teenage beauty pageant competitors, the sole survivors of a plane crash that killed the rest of the contestants and the camera crew & staff. The main character, Miss Teen Dream New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg, is an anti-pageant young woman who seeks to undermine the structure by infiltrating it. One of my favorite scenes of this book occurred when the egotistical (and probably overly stereotypical) Miss Team Dream Texas, Taylor, makes Adina pretend to be a host asking all of the girls questions, as per pageant style. Adina whips up a few zingers, such as, “The pageant has come under fire for perpetuating an unrealistic image of superthin girls as beautiful, and many people feel this is harmful to girls’ self-esteem. What do you say to these critics? And what do you personally feel about these narrow standards of beauty?” (45) The clueless contestant in question has to ask her to define perpetuate. Adina also questions the sole Black contestant, Nicole, about whether or not she thinks race is a factor, an issue exacerbated by some tension from an Indian contestant (Miss California, Shanti), who had been hoping her own ethnic differences would give her an edge.
There are inserts that include interviews (there is a hilarious one with Ladybird Hope, a not-so-subtle Palin imitation, who is Taylor’s idol and a former Miss Teen Dream title-holder), snippets of personality profiles of the contestants, (which, in retrospect, were quite masterfully done regarding character insight), that I found to be the most interesting parts of the book.
Now, onto the characters. I didn’t get far enough to really dig into the plot, and the plot itself doesn’t concern me as much as this is very clearly a character-driven novel, meant to critique pageant culture, beauty standards, and concepts of femininity. We’ve got the stereotypical pageant girls (I am not very up on pageant culture, so I honestly can’t say whether or not such stereotypes remain true to this day. Obviously, I want to be supportive of my fellow women, but I also am dubious of those who think that anything any individual woman wants to do is empowering for all women–but that’s neither here nor there. tl;dr – we don’t exist in a vacuum), but we’ve also got quite a cast of subversive characters. Just 100ish pages in, there are three interesting discoveries about the competitors who are remaining: one is lesbian, one is transgender, and one is hearing-impaired.
The danger here is tokenism–and the feeling of being the preached-to-choir, on my part, at least. Some of the stuff here is pretty heavy-handed. Jennifer, aka Miss Michigan, has her grandmother say, “God doesn’t like lesbians,” to which she ruminates, “…she couldn’t understand why God would hold that against her or against Monica Mathers [Jennifer had drawn a heart around this person’s image in a magazine], who’d never started a war or killed anybody…After all, hadn’t God made both of them? But people were like that, she’d noticed. They’d invoke Godly privilege at the weirdest of times and for the most stupid of reasons” (61). I found this to be, well, a bit melodramatic. But maybe that’s just me. Jennifer then develops a crush on the hearing-impaired contestant, Miss Illinois, Sosie, who I didn’t get enough of to really see how her character turned out.
Then there’s the transgender character, Petra West (Miss Rhode Island), who also happens to be a former teeny-bopper that the other contestants used to swoon over (pre-transition, though she hasn’t undergone surgery, I wasn’t sure how else to phrase this–if someone wants to correct me, I’d be much obliged), which sort of made me laugh by its sheer coincidental outrageousness. The other contestants freak out when they discover that she’s pre-op, although Nicole expresses some inner struggle over whether or not this should bar Petra from competing. This I thought was particularly timely (though this book was published last year) in light of the Miss Canada Universe controversy, where Jenna Talackova, who was initially barred from competing once it was discovered that she was transgender, was eventually allowed to compete.
Anyway, I’m not sure why, but I grew bored about 60 pages in and was flipping through to read the character profiles, when I stumbled upon Petra’s scene. I suppose I might try to finish this book at a later date, but for now, this is the best I can give. I do hope that if any of you have read it, you’ll comment about it.
Verdict: If you like colloquial writing (resplendent with lots of footnotes of faux-cultural references, which are cleverly done, but I personally find distracting), are up on pop-culture (or at least don’t mind repeated references to it), you might enjoy this book. I’d give it a tentative recommendation based on a few genuinely funny scenes, and a willingness to tackle difficult issues, but with the caveat that it just couldn’t hold my interest.