There are plenty of sentences in this book that are straight-up funny, and suggest that Libba Bray must've had a really good time writing this book. She's at her funniest when describing the bumbling, crazy adults.
Take Agent Jones: "The agent lowered the silencer. Damn snakes. They had no manners. They were tasty, though. Just like chicken." (5.11) His over-serious internal monologue is undercut by ironic "Just like chicken" sentences.
With the beauty queens themselves, Bray is gentler, sometimes downright sympathetic:
"'Maybe you should ask God and nature why they put a girl inside a boy's body?' Petra shouted to the uncaring sky." (9.86)
She could've ended that sentence at "shouted" but "the uncaring sky" suggests sympathy. Unlike the adults, the beauty queens' problems and the changes they go through are treated with respect. Even if they still cause a chuckle from time to time.
The world of Beauty Queens is an exaggerated one: it's just a little weirder than our own. We learn a lot about it through the footnotes, which provide bits of trivia on the culture of the world:
"Roland Me'sognie, the notoriously fat-phobic French designer whose tourniquet-tight fashions adorn the paper cut-thin bodies of models, starlets, socialites, and reality TV stars. In fact, when the svelte pinup Bananas Foster, famous for starring in a series of medical side-effect commercials, was arrested in a Vegas club for snorting cholesterol-lowering drugs while wearing a Roland jumpsuit, he pronounced her "too fat to steal my oxygen. I die to see her misuse my genius. The earth weeps with me." Sales rose 88% that week. The House of Roland was the first to introduce sizing lower than 0—the -1. "We make the woman disappear and the fashion appear!" (1.F.2)
Like all good satire, Bray's notes take problematic aspects of our pop culture and exaggerate them so that we can see the problem more clearly. There is no clothing line with a size -1. But size 0's are common—at least, commonly sold or worn by models, even if they're not so common on most actual humans. So Bray highlights the problem of women feeling pressured to conform to such ultra-thin standards.
Throughout the book, Bray exaggerates the truth to make us laugh, but also to encourage us to think more critically about our own world. Yup, that's pretty much satire in a nutshell.
The title Beauty Queens is no mystery. There's no poetic metaphor that hints at the deeper meaning within the book. Beauty Queens is the type of title that simply tells you the subject of the story.
That's right. It's about beauty queens.
However. Notice it says "queens," not "queen." Before you even open the book, the title tells you that this story has no main character. It's about a whole group of girls who start out all gunning for the same thing, but in the end come to figure themselves out, as individuals and as former pageant contestants.
Emphasis on the former. This story's not about the crown. By the end, the title is almost ironic: sure, they're still beautiful and all, but they've gone way past the original beauty queen stereotype. How's that for sneaking a poetic metaphor in there after all?
The final number is almost a montage. In their getaway yacht, the girls are partying. While Shanti DJs, each beauty queen gets to walk the runway in their own ensemble, dancing their own way. While they pose, the narration tells us how they will turn out.
Hint: really well.
For a book that discusses a lot of huge, societal problems, it sure seems to wrap up with a nice, neat bow.
But think about what came before: not much societal change. The girls exposed The Corporation's crimes, which included serious stuff like treasonous arms deals and human trafficking. That's serious stuff. But all the media can focus on is Ladybird Hope's sex scandal. Sigh.
In the end, the world is not a better place. Sure, Ladybird Hope has to face justice, but all those arms deals and human trafficking problems? Not solved.
Okay, back to the happy stuff. The individual girls in the book are better and happier than when they started.
So what does it all mean? Could Bray be telling us that even if societal change is out of our control, embracing ourselves and taking charge of our own lives is? The final runway number does feel really optimistic, almost like a utopia, like Bray is saying: this is who you can become. Just don't get too depressed when you can't change the world around you, too. At least, not right away.
In her Acknowledgments, Libba Bray leaves us a clue about how she dreamed up the setting. "Further thanks should go to Josh Goldblatt," she writes. "You're right that 'the villain should have a secret lair in the volcano. That's, like, the number-one secret villain hide-out.'"
You name any desert island cliché, and this island's got it. There's a beach (of course), a jungle, clearings containing the ruins of a former civilization, mountains, a waterfall, quicksand, and yes, a volcano with an evil corporate headquarters inside. Oh, and giant snakes.
Having all these elements allows Bray to play with and comment on other stories set on deserted islands, sometimes directly:
"A hint of panic worked its way into Shanti's voice. 'I think this is quicksand!'
Nicole rolled her eyes. 'C'mon. That's just a desert island trope.'
'Well, right now, it's the desert island trope that's sucking me down. Would you help me out here?'" (16.56-58)
Making fun of a cliché even as she blatantly throws it in the story. Classy.
Plus, quicksand, like many of the other natural obstacles within the island, bond Nicole and Shanti together. Which is just one of the moments in which the Teen Dreams get down to some serious emotional heavy lifting. And most of the scenes when that happens tend to happen deeper in the jungle.
On the flip side, the beach is like their connection to the rest of the world. Or at least they think it is. They camp there with the hope of spotting a rescue ship, and they find the reality-TV pirates on the beach (which is a link to reality, in a weird, twisted way).
But deeper in the jungle feels like a place away from their former lives. It's where Mary Lou can be her wild girl self, where Taylor can hide after she goes crazy, and where the non-white girls can fall into quicksand, and get out again. In this story, the deeper into the island they go, the more likely they are to grow as characters.
As far as writing goes, Beauty Queens is very straightforward. The sentences and vocab aren't complicated, and much of the story takes place through the dialogue between the beauty queens. The lens of the narrator switches between characters a whole bunch, but it isn't hard to tell who is being focused on. The only wrench that Bray throws in occasionally are scenes and messages from The Corporation that hint at things, rather that telling you exactly what's going on. It's up to you to take the hints and guess what will eventually go down on the island.
A lot of this story is dialogue. The girls have discussions to figure out the next step to ensure their survival. The language is simple, and so are the changes from scene to scene. Bray gives us the footnotes to explain the girls' references so we won't be confused about the world of the book.
But all the extras—the commercials, questionnaires, and the insider scenes of The Corporation, are full of the jokes. They create a feeling of excitement, like you don't know who's going to show up onscreen next.
And oh, does Bray deliver. Two words: British pirates.
Mary Lou's mother gave her the purity ring to "contain her curse" (14.15)—that being the curse of excessive passion, which she believes affects all the women in her family. It's not stated outright just how the curse works, but it has something to do with the wildness of the girls in her family. Meaning, either they're cursed to be wild, or they're cursed to have bad things happen because of their wildness. In other words, darned if you do, darned if you don't.
When Adina makes fun of the idea of a purity ring, Mary Lou says "Some girls need protection" (4.21). The "from themselves" end of the sentence is implied.
So Mary Lou's ring symbolizes protection, but not the good, loving kind. It's the kind based on fear. If she doesn't embrace her wild side, nothing will happen to her, which is basically how the protection is supposed to work. But let's be real: it's boring to have nothing happen, isn't it?
The morning after she loses her ring, we see a whole new side of Mary Lou. She runs through the jungle naked, "her body strong, her every sense heightened." (14.55) And the journey of self-discovery, finding love, and saving all her friends keeps on chugging from there.
Kinda makes you wonder whether she was more "cursed" with or without the ring.
The overnight case that contains Petra's "medicine" is actually full of female hormones, like estrogen. In other words, the medicine that helps Petra in her transition from biologically male to female. Petra desperately looks for the case, and when she finds it, she holds onto it even as it's being swept away by a wave—which takes the tree and the girl who climbed it, too. But Petra gets her case.
She clings to her hormones because they keep her looking female. They're essential to helping Petra feel the most like herself. And in the beginning, before Petra is out as transgender, they also represent her hiding from the other girls.
Petra doesn't want to hide, but it's part of the deal she made with the group who will fund her sexual reassignment surgery. Here's the idea: if she places highly in the pageant and then reveals that she's transgender, her national spotlight will challenge the national ideal of what it means to be female. So, a good cause, but a lot of pressure.
When she's caught by Tiara and almost outed to the group by Shanti, Petra takes back her own power, saying, "You want me to sleep somewhere else, fine. Whatever. But I'm not going to pretend to be somebody I'm not. I've done enough of that." (10.72) Way to go, Petra. Plus, her case doesn't matter as much after she comes out. Which is good news in case another wave comes along, too.
The island's giant snakes are a threat—one almost kills Sosie early in the book—but they're also mistreated. After stabbing a snake to death, Sosie and Jennifer discover that it is covered in tumors. "It had probably once been a glorious creature, and Jen was reminded of the old, tough-as-algebra barflies in her neighborhood, the ones with the long, permed hair who still clung to the leopard-print dresses they'd put on thirty years ago and refused to retire." (7.52)
Scary, but sort of sad, too. They even start to feel bad for the snake, even though it tried to kill them. The barflies may not be so dangerous, but same gist.
The snake is an early, foreboding warning of The Corporation's influence on the island. It's later revealed that The Corporation tested many of their products on animals, snakes included. That's why it's so satisfying when a snake eats Harris—it's like the island is getting back at The Corporation. With his stupid swagger and disregard for other people's lives it's only fitting that a snake swallows him, following a hiss that "was deep and personal and very, very pissed off." (38.31) That's a lot of emotion in a snake hiss, yo.
Did you notice that the snake doesn't try to eat the girls who are standing with him? In this scene, the snake's not dining for fun, only for payback. Whew.
On one part of the island are the remains of a lost civilization. First Sosie and Jennifer see it when they find Tane's radio and rations, and Nicole and Shanti find it later on. We later learn from Tane, "This island used to belong to my people before The Corporation pushed them out and took it over." (15.10)
Think it's a coincidence that the pageant's only non-white beauty queens wind up there? Of course you don't. There are no coincidences in symbolism.
When Nicole first visits the area where totems guard a burned land from the top of a hill, she feels a presence there and speaks to it. Drawing from her Nigerian heritage, she makes a traditional drum. And maybe that helps her gain the favor of the presence, because later, when Shanti and Nicole are being chased by black shirts, Shanti prays to whatever spirits might still be there for help, and:
"A wind soft as a warm breath blew across their faces. It left them and turned fierce, stripping leaves from trees and pulling the dirt from ancient earthen walls. Like an angry fist, it pushed the black shirts from the temple, forcing them back into the jungle." (37.14)
Wind with a fist. Now that's how to answer a prayer.
Basically, the old temple and totems represent the people who were displaced by The Corporation. And, like the snake, the presence that exists there is very anti-corporate. How mystic.
The narrator of this book has god-level mind-reading skills. The story slips in and out of the points of view of a huge cast of characters, often in a single chapter. Chapter Eight, for example, starts in Shanti's head and flits between her perspective, Nicole's, and Petra's, before ending with a section from the perspective of Agent Jones. If narrative techniques had legs, this one just ran a marathon.
Then there are segments that are from the point of view of an off-screen entity: The Corporation. That's where you'll find the occasional chapter that addresses the reader directly, encouraging you (the reader) to report subversive activity.
There are also footnotes that read like commercials, with irresistible marketing like, "Bipolar Bears, The Corporation's cuddly combination vitamin and mood-leveling drug marketed to tween and teen girls. Bipolar Bears banish bad moods and keep you beauty-queen perfect. Sold in a variety of signature bottles. Collect them all!" (F.18) Any business major would kill for a goldmine like that.
These ad-like gems give context to the world of the novel, plus add a creepy feeling that The Corporation, like Big Brother, is watching you, the reader.
The conflict in this book is pretty immediate, but we do get a prologue told in the voice of The Corporation. It describes the pageant queens travelling, excited, toward their competition, and the pilots' content. At least, right up until something goes wrong.
But it keeps telling readers not to worry, which, naturally, makes us do the opposite. Time to panic.
Few things say immediate conflict like a plane crash. The surviving Teen Dreams find themselves on a (seemingly) deserted island, and so must figure out how to survive. The struggle gets even more real when they have to survive not only the elements, but also The Corporation black shirts who want to kill them. Not to mention giant snakes, hallucinogenic fruit, sexy pirate men, and most dangerous of all, lots and lots of self-reflection.
This book pulls no punches building up suspense to the climax: the scene of the beauty pageant, where the beauty queens will either be killed by disguised corporate drones, or somehow not. There's even a section called A Word from Your Sponsor right before it happens, which tells us, "The world has tuned in. It is watching." (33.35) Yeah, that's not ominous at all.
The Teen Dreams manage to escape the black shirts, and being locked inside The Corporation facility while it was set to self-destruct. They set sail away on MoMo ChaCha's luxury yacht, and in an immensely satisfying scene, call in to the show where Ladybird Hope was planning to announce their deaths and release a sex tape that incriminates her. You know what they say about karma.
The final scene is a dance number where each girl gets to walk the runway, dancing to her own beat. It's a big uniqueness-beats-conformity moment. When they pose, the narrator gives us a glimpse of how they will turn out. A lot of entrepreneurs, political leaders, and happy mothers in this group. Survival, and then some.