Study Guide

Mary Lou Novak (Miss Nebraska) in Beauty Queens

By Libba Bray

Mary Lou Novak (Miss Nebraska)

There are two sides to Mary Lou, but you wouldn't know it from the beginning. The Mary Lou who starts the book is helpful and congenial—so much so that she's gunning for Miss Congeniality. She explains to Adina how to seem more humble, and to top it off, she wears a purity ring. But what happens when the ring comes off? A whole new side of Mary Lou, that's what.

Here's the deal with the purity ring. Along with her sister Annie, Mary Lou used to be a "wild girl." (14.17) What does that mean, exactly? It means being out of control, which for a girl is basically the opposite of that idea where young ladies are supposed to fit certain standards, which don't usually include things like ambition, passion, or overpowering sexual desire. So the flip side, as Mary Lou puts it, is "feel[ing] so much—it's like I want to eat up the world." (14.13)

When they were kids, that meant Mary Lou dreamed of being a pirate queen, and Annie wanted to be a sorceress. But Annie ran away with the circus and came back pregnant. That's where the passion and wildness come in.

Mary Lou scared a boy off by showing too much sexual desire, and got labeled a "whore" (14.15) at school. Double standards, anyone? Anyway, Mary Lou's mother was afraid Mary Lou would wind up like Annie, so she bought her a purity ring and enlisted her in pageants to keep her out of trouble.

But things like being stuck on a desert island tend to make jewelry harder to keep track of. So, once the ring is gone, Mary Lou believes her family curse has been unleashed. The narration describes her in magical terms: "her body strong, her every sense heightened." (14.55) Mary Lou feels good and strong when she's free with her body. That doesn't sound so bad, does it?

When she meets a boy who isn't scared off by her, she starts to question the idea of the curse. And when Adina feels guilty for having sex with a boy, Mary Lou has a major realization: "the curse was in allowing yourself to be shamed." (23.29) Her wildness wasn't the problem. Feeling bad about it was. Reading between the lines: that's a pretty powerful encouragement to girls and women the world over not to be ashamed of who they are, or what they feel.

It's only fitting that in the end, Mary Lou becomes an actual pirate queen, sailing the group back to safety on MoMo's yacht. When she describes her plan to take them home, she says, "The Captains Bodacious have a stylin' new boat and a bodacious new captain." (41.19)

Not so focused on humility anymore. Who needs to be Miss Congeniality when you've got a pirate ship of your very own?

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