When a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashes on a seemingly-deserted island, the survivors are forced to trade their high heels for survival techniques, while they wait for the inevitable rescue plane or ship. Their efforts, however, are complicated by the top secret compound hidden in the island’s volcano and by the fact that a powerful foe doesn’t want them to return home at all.
I expected to love Beauty Queens, especially as there was so much positive buzz surrounding its release. A satire about beauty pageant participants being stranded on a desert island – how could it be anything but wonderful? Unfortunately, I cannot be counted among the book’s many fans. I found it disappointing, boring and often annoying and I shall attempt to explain why.
Satire is a difficult art and, I suspect, a highly subjective one. There is a fine line between cleverness and cliché and, for me, Libba Bray’s novel fell on the wrong side of this line. The trouble with intentionally writing in an over the top style is that it often has the same outcome as the very style one is mocking – poor writing. If a book is badly written for humorous effect, it is still badly written, and that can become very grating in a book as long as this one. I also question the originality of Bray’s satire. Is there anything new in portraying foreign dictators as ineffectual buffoons, blonde beauty queens as intellectual black holes or television corporations as brain washers of the general populace? Or anything clever, for that matter?
One of the things I found most disapointing about Beauty Queens was its characters. The surviving beauties are a collection of stereotypes – from the tomboyish, delinquent lesbian to the gun-toting, pageant-obsessed Texan and right through to the wild girl with strong sexual appetites and the trans woman who just wants to be a beautiful princess. Such a focus on character types leaves the characters themselves very one-dimensional and it is hard to care much about their individual stories. In addition, I didn’t think Beauty Queens was very successful if it were attempting to subvert these stereotypes; if anything, they felt perpetuated.
A lot of people have spoken about the relation between Beauty Queens and feminism, and I agree that it seems to be promoting a Girl Power kind of message. I have my doubts about the validity of the feminist message here, however. The novel doesn’t feel sex-positive so much as sex-imperative (with multiple readers feeling mocked for holding more conservative views than those the book appears to promote) and there is an emphasis on finding men and on appearances that doesn’t feel entirely satirical. The thing that grated on me personally, though, was the way that Bray put across her message – with a sledgehammer. It felt like she didn’t trust her (mostly female) audience to find truths within a subtly didactic plot.
Then again, nothing is subtle here and, in the long run, that was the key thing that ensured I could not enjoy Beauty Queens. It is over the top, always transparent and predictable, and more than a little hackneyed. I think that was entirely Libba Bray’s intention, so I cannot fault her for it, but the execution just didn’t work for me and I was left feeling like I’d wasted too many hours wading through four hundred-odd pages of a joke that tired after forty.