I have always loved to read and write, but when it came to high school English class, I always had trouble staying engaged. Part of me knew that it was the institution of grading; I never wanted to be graded for the way I read a book, I just wanted to enjoy it. The constant essays, analyses, and exams that were required often hindered my reading process. I was always so concerned with figuring out the answers the teachers were looking for rather than my own interpretation of the text. I also couldn’t help but notice that so many of the books on the required reading list were extremely lacking in diversity. How many books about privileged, straight, white, cisgender boys did I have to tolerate before I could get my diploma? It was unnerving. One example that always comes to mind is Lord of the Flies. I don’t think I’ve really met anyone who enjoyed this book when we read it in high school. All I took away from it was the theme of teenage boys causing chaos and forced to come to terms with how privileged they are. Personally, I think we see enough of this plot in everyday life.
One day, when I was scrolling through Tumblr, I saw that someone had posted about a feminist, intersectional, and female driven alternative to Lord of the Flies. I have heard of Libba Bray’s novel Beauty Queens before, whether it was in YouTube videos about suggested YA books, from friends and peers, or seeing the book in stores, always picking it up and putting it back down for some reason. I’m not sure if it was the cover of the book that initially turned me off – which is definitely a possibility, considering my weird aversion to books with photographed models on the cover – but when I saw this post and the nuanced expansion on the characterization and plot, I decided it was finally time to give it a whirl. And DANG, am I glad I did.
This novel has a very simple premise: much like Lord of the Flies, a plane crashes on an island and the teenage passengers are forced with the task of creating their own method of survival. But as the title suggests, these aren’t typical teenagers, but contestants for the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant. With the typical image of teenage beauty pageant contestants being rich and vapid white girls competing for the ultimate status of beauty and adoration, Bray sets up a completely misguided expectation for the reader. While there are definitely some aspects of these girls’ personalities that fit into the beauty queen stereotype, such as being obsessed with makeup and glamour, the group of girls depicted in this novel is diverse, smart, intersectional, and feminist as shit. From the devoted contestant who wants to use her first place winnings for a spot in medical school, to the former member of a beloved boy band who is transitioning and working to prove that there is no single way to define womanhood, Bray gives the reader a number of perspectives that these women use to tackle their situation and overcome expectations from the pageant’s sponsor, The Corporation.
Within this group of about twelve remaining constants who survive the plane crash, there are representations for the LGBTQ+ community, the deaf community, women of color, class differences, and so many more. And unlike some media that offer these platforms of representation, Bray’s novel achieves these storylines without it feeling like a forced attempt to include “other” perspectives for the sake of being diverse. Ideas of the patriarchy are constantly being challenged in this story, as the women use their situation as a way to prove they can make an effectively functioning civilization for themselves without the presence of any men. The girls discover that all of their own personal experiences have garnered different types of skills that attribute to their survival in unique and important ways. They even discuss how they hope to make the ideas they have while on the island a reality when they return home, such as starting GirlCon (which I totally wish was a thing), establishing their own pharmaceutical company, and exposing the corrupt institution that is The Corporation.
And if the intricate use of characterization and gripping, suspenseful plotline doesn’t pull you in from the beginning – which would really surprise me – you will at least be sure to laugh out loud while reading this novel. Bray brilliantly uses the expected speech and jargon of these beauty pageant contestants to make the dialogue believable, as well as the perfect amount of ridiculous. The line “Oh my gosh, Miss Delaware just died,” while Miss Texas rattles on about Jesus being her co-pilot still gets me every time.
This novel really has it all, which is to say it has so much more than Lord of the Flies. If I had read this book in high school, I may have actually put more effort into taking notes, fulfilling essay prompts, and participating in class discussions. I mean, which would you prefer: talking about how that one kid named himself king of the fuckboys with a pig’s head (or something like that, I clearly repressed all memories of this book), or having a chat about a bunch of girls who had a world’s worth of different experiences that attributed to them being able to survive on a deserted island… and one with half an airplane tray lodged in her forehead? I’m telling you, this book is incredible.