Meredith Holley (Sparrow)'s Reviews > Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
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Apr 05, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: girls-rule, hilarious, romantic, slaves, utopia-dystopia, reviewed, motherless-daughters
Recommended to Meredith by: Caris
Recommended for: everyone

In most ways, this book was absolutely written for me. It is LOST + Miss Congeniality + Susan Faludi’s Backlash. Sarah Palin and GW stand-ins make appearances to be generally villainous. It has lovely, lovely girls, lots of action, and some pretty hilarious jokes. Oh, and hilarious jokes in the footnotes. (Because why use endnotes, people? No need to be coy.) There is one about putting dolls on a pedestal that is my favorite joke in the book, if you want to know. The odd thing about the book is that it mixes slapstick detachment and satire with some pretty touching, beautiful moments. Sometimes that is jarring. Sometimes the girls are caricatures of social stereotypes, and other times they are breathtaking hope for the future. It was difficult for me to transition between the two, but in general, I really loved both moods of the story.

So, this is not going to be a fair review. I’d say it’s even going to be borderline hypocritical. I did a lot of sputtering about a feminist critique of Bridesmaids because WTF, people, does everything have to be the ideal feminist mantra? Sometimes a story about girls is just a story about girls. The tough thing about this book is that I feel like it was making some pretty purposeful feminist statements, so I think it opened itself up to more criticism because of that. It’s not really fair that I feel that way, and I found the things it did really thought provoking, but the book’s going to get some extra scrutiny over it.

First, I love Mary Lou. I love love love her. Even though I will not get over my bitter disappointment about pirates this easily, I love her story. I think the writing is electric around her. I love her.

I love the other girls as well, but Mary Lou is special. I think each girl in the story represents overcoming some kind of stigmatized female experience. Maybe Mary Lou’s experience was more real to Ms. Bray because I found it absolutely vivid, where the others seemed researched. In the way that all the girls are reactions to misogyny (and by that I don’t mean sexism from men. I like how Bray is clear about how women perpetuate misogyny, too.) the story made me a little sad. I always look for those beautiful female characters who are not reacting to anyone, but just being wonderful in who they are. I like seeing women who aren’t putting on a show. I think it would be easy to compare these girls to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but I really think Elle remains herself throughout the movie. She doesn’t have a moment where she turns on herself and says, “Oh wait. I am an idiot because I care about pretty things.” That is who she is in the beginning and it saves the day in the end.

I also love how Adina talks about girls looking to romantic relationships for self-definition. If someone desires us, it makes us desirable. It makes a relationship more than it is, and something it shouldn't be. I love how she identifies it and says that it is not how she wants to be.

A few things that troubled me, though. This book starts with the premise that a girl would only do pageants because of a social or emotional disturbance. As the story unravels, the girls reveal, one by one, the social or emotional wounds that led them to be in the pageant. I don’t know how I feel about that assumption. I like the idea that pageant girls can kick ass, too, but I don’t love the idea that being pretty is the sign of psychological disturbance. To be fair, on a few occasions, Bray does very consciously make the point that it’s okay to like being pretty, but the assumption is still there, underlying the whole book.

The other premise that shows up in the book is that girls need an island to overcome what we're socially trained to be. That's more of a thesis of the book, as Penny very correctly points out. I'm not totally down with that idea either. It has this kind of hopelessness, like culture is so entrenched in unhealthy expectations for girls that there is no room for real girls in culture. That idea bums me out, and I don't think it's true. There is an Awakening quality to it that I hope strong female writers get past, and that I think some have gotten past. We are here! The world is for us too!! Don't give it up, girls, and retreat to your own private islands. I mean, I love The Awakening and I love The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar, but I think there also needs to be room for girls in culture. There need to be elbowing and kidney-kicks to people who try to tell girls that the world isn't for them. I don't think floating away to an island is the answer for girls becasue it is aka suicide, for those of you who are not up on your hopeless women writers. And that is not the answer.

Anyway, back to the girls. I don’t want to spoiler who all the girls are for you, because some of the reveals are pretty fun. None of them are surprising, but they are pretty fun. Unfortunately, I think that the way the girls end up is really important to the way I’m looking at the book, so I’m going to hide a little bit of my discussion of it. I’d really say go read it for yourself before you read my spoilers because what I’m saying will probably get into your brain in a way that will make your reading of it less fun. So, come back once you’ve read it, and we’ll discuss.

(view spoiler)

It’s tough because there were a lot of characters in this book. It was difficult to give them all humanity and depth, I’m sure, and so some worked out better than others. There were a couple of points where, if I had put the book down for a little while, I would come back to it and forget who Miss New Mexico or Ohio were. There was a lot going on. Still, though, it was really fun and funny, and tear-jerky at a couple of points for me. It will definitely not be a five-star book for everyone, but I had a beautiful day out in the hammock reading it, so it is giving a halo to the experience. Also, as I guessed from the moment I first saw its cover, I am the intended audience for this book.
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Reading Progress

April 5, 2011 – Shelved
July 1, 2011 – Started Reading
July 1, 2011 –
0.0% "IT CAME!!!!!! EEEEK!!!"
July 9, 2011 –
page 181
45.71% "This book is so freaking good, and I'm not even sorry to tell you! so. freaking. good."
July 9, 2011 – Shelved as: girls-rule
July 9, 2011 – Shelved as: hilarious
July 9, 2011 – Shelved as: romantic
July 9, 2011 – Shelved as: slaves
July 9, 2011 – Shelved as: utopia-dystopia
July 9, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 12, 2011 – Shelved as: reviewed
August 6, 2011 – Shelved as: motherless-daughters

Comments (showing 1-49 of 49) (49 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Wtf? Get this review written, girl.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Ha! I didn't get this update. Done and done.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Finally. Sheesh.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I know, GAH! I had too many things and not enough things to say all at the same time.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Okay, I updated. I forgot one of my most important problems with the book because I thought of it while I was in the car. But Penny's review reminded me.


Christy The other premise that shows up in the book is that girls need an island to overcome what we're socially trained to be.

Very interesting point. I hadn't thought about that while I was reading it, but the book did very much remind me of earlier feminist utopian texts like Joanna Russ's The Female Man (at least in terms of Whileaway, an all-women utopian future) or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. In these texts, too, women are able to be strong and independent in a separate space - but not in a shared space.

I want to re-read the book and think this through some more, but it does seem like this book takes those earlier utopian narratives and challenges them (view spoiler)


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I thought of Herland, too. I haven't read the Female Man. I agree with what you're saying (view spoiler)


Christy Yeah, I see what you mean - and that's exactly why I feel like I want to re-read the book to try to get a better handle on how Bray deals with these things.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Yeah, let me know if you do and what you think. I'll be interested to hear.


message 10: by Kelly (last edited Jul 13, 2011 08:30AM) (new)

Kelly This book starts with the premise that a girl would only do pageants because of a social or emotional disturbance. As the story unravels, the girls reveal, one by one, the social or emotional wounds that led them to be in the pageant. I don’t know how I feel about that assumption. I like the idea that pageant girls can kick ass, too, but I don’t love the idea that being pretty is the sign of psychological disturbance.

It's not being pretty, per se, I don't think. Pageant culture tells you that you're never pretty enough. Fake=pleasing, in my understanding. Fake and plasticy and dated in a way that doesn't always translate to real life, even though of course having a BA in Bullshit is always helpful in general life situations. :) Not what we'd want to impart on children as a 'lesson', but useful, I guess.

Embarrassing confession time: My mother put me in pageants when I was a little girl. Like age 2-4. I won a lot (my talent was that I knew all my states and capitals by the time I was 2). I am not proud of this (OMG am I not- she won't get rid of the trophies, no matter how I beg). I just say this to emphasize the weirdness of the fact that she then took me out of them and refused to let me do them ever again. She told me she did it because one day she walked into a bathroom and saw a mother with a three year old slapping the shit out of her because she was "so fat and ugly, and that's why you lost!" That was the last straw, but hardly the only horrible thing she saw. I can see the argument for why someone would have to have some sort of psychological problem to keep their daughter or themselves in that environment. That, or willpower/self-image control of steel that somehow doesn't get affected by it. I'm grateful my mom took me out- I wouldnt've gotten out alive.

Maybe that is an argument for the strength of these girls after all. Either way, great review. :) Totally did live up to the hype!


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Thanks, Kelly! Pageants are total nightmares, IMO. But, actually I know at least two girls who have done/are doing pageants, who I'm pretty positive aren't doing them out of issues with their moms or because they were pressured to or to reveal the eeeevils of pageants. Both are law students now, and one kind of randomly got into one, and the other is hardcore pageants all the way. It freaks me out, but sororities and fraternities freak me out too, and I know some lovely people who have been in those.

I'm totally there with her in the different descriptions of why people got into the pageants, I just think it's possible for a girl to go into them not out of some great emotional disturbance, but just because that was the culture she grew up in, and she never thought of anything different. Anyway, I think it got a little extreme in the book, if only in a way where I think it has the potential to alienate pageant girls, who are really the girls you would want to read the book.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I think what is troubling to me about it is the stigmatization of things that are "girly." I guess I am really sensitive about that, but I think it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it is better to be more like men. Like being smart has to do with masculine clothing. And, unfortunately I think that ends up looking like trucks and guns are legit and sparkles and polish are dumb. I just don't think trucks, guns, sparkles, or polish dictate whether someone is smart or dumb, or emotionally healthy or not.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

There is absolutely no stimatization of things that are girly, at least from my vantage point raising up a girl. Girly is the only available option, and the figleaf on why this is acceptable is that there's this folk myth about mean hippy moms who took away all the Barbies, and don't we want our girls to embrace their femininity? Well, yes, I do, but all I see is femininity being crammed down my and her throats at every turn.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Right, but don't you think that later it becomes lame to like those things in any kind of professional culture, while it is perfectly acceptable for men to continue to like the toys they grew up with? Like, girls, as children, don't have a lot of choice in what to play with - like you're saying. But, when they grow up, they either have to start liking "boy" things or be okay with being seen as stupid. I don't know. I'm probably not saying it very well, but there's a whole section in Backlash about being male-identified, and if I remember correctly, it was really cool.


message 15: by Meredith (last edited Jul 13, 2011 09:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) There is a nice part in the book, though, where they all kind of reconcile that some of them like pedicures and others don't, and it's not definitive as to whether they're okay people or not. But . . . it is still the idiot girl who likes nail polish, as I recall. Actually EDIT: I think a lot of the girls back her up at that point, and even some of the girls who do are specifically pretty badass.


message 16: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Right, but don't you think that later it becomes lame to like those things in any kind of professional culture, while it is perfectly acceptable for men to continue to like the toys they grew up with?

I mean, I only have a few years of 'professional culture' to speak of, but in the offices I worked at the women were always thought of more affectionately for doing something feminine or liking something feminine. Like some of the high powered women who would have been condemned as 'bitchy' revealed their obsession with like, I don't know, Jessica Simpson shoes and suddenly they were the toast of the party and people felt like they could talk to them again. I see what you're saying, but I think maybe the pressure to be 'male' is something that women put more on themselves than something that's projected onto them. I might not know what I'm talking about though.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I feel like I'm talking about all of this in a really confusing way, but I can't get it straight in my head how to be more clear. Anyway, I agree with what you're saying, but I think that's more evidence for the problem of male-identification than evidence against. I think when that happens, the other women think, "Oh, you are not actually a man. You are still a woman, but you are also smart." And there is that sense of relief that liking things that are identified as feminine doesn't preclude women from being successful. But, I also think no one reacts like that to someone who talks about Jessica Simpson shoes all the time. It is only to someone who has established the ability to cross over to the male side of things already.


message 18: by Christy (last edited Jul 13, 2011 10:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Christy It's also very possible that the admission of liking Jessica Simpson shoes is a way for everyone else to put that woman back in the feminine box. It's more comfortable for everyone (at least everyone who has grown up with and not really challenged traditional Western gender roles) to be able to see women as feminine, and this brings with it a lot of cultural baggage. I'd argue that the social comfort that comes along with the Jessica Simpson shoes is a sign that the feminine stuff is not seen positively but is in fact looked down upon since it is the feminine stuff that makes those women seem weaker, less threatening, etc.

In other words, the accoutrements of femininity are (or at least can be) disempowering for women and not a way for them to be seen as powerful. The accoutrements of masculinity, on the other hand, often signify power.


message 19: by Meredith (last edited Jul 13, 2011 10:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) That's a good point. I don't necessarily think it's always that negative. I know a lot of times I will be talking with girls at the law school about something really depressing or intellectual, and it is a relief to talk about something "girly" for a little while. I always feel a little element of relief that the fun is not lost in our lives. And I think what we liked as children, when our tastes are so much more extremely gendered, represents fun in a lot of ways.

I do think what you're saying can be true, though. And I agree with what you're saying about the accoutrements of femininity/masculinity.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I think in this book, it's an interesting issue because the girls are teenagers and deciding, in a lot of ways, what is acceptable as feminine or masculine. (view spoiler) I know I'm waaaaay over-thinking it, but it's like a puzzle to me.


Christy Meredith wrote: "I don't necessarily think it's always that negative. I know a lot of times I will be talking with girls at the law school about something really depressing or intellectual, and it is a relief to talk about something "girly" for a little while."

Totally. This is what I think is so tricky in conversations about this issue. "Girly" things are not inherently negative, but they come with all of this baggage that it is important to be aware of, so it becomes difficult to know when to just go with it and enjoy it and when to stop and analyze it.


message 22: by Meredith (last edited Jul 13, 2011 11:09AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Totally. There are so many assumptions we make about the value of things that are socially masculine or feminine that it is difficult to figure out any objective value. Like, I know I don't want to be shallow, but does liking sparkles make a person shallow? It's pretty murky, but I don't think so.


message 23: by Kelly (new)

Kelly "Girly" things are not inherently negative, but they come with all of this baggage that it is important to be aware of, so it becomes difficult to know when to just go with it and enjoy it and when to stop and analyze it.

I definitely agree with this, and I think I see your point more clearly, Meredith. I agree that it is a shallow to condemn a person for liking sparkles as to do so for not liking sparkles. We're not the sum total of just one or two things that might seem gender stereotypical (or not) about us.


message 24: by Jess (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jess The other premise that shows up in the book is that girls need an island to overcome what we're socially trained to be."

I like this quote from you because it made me think. Adina did have a line somewhat similiar tp that in the novel. When I thought about it, though, the book isn't really saying that at all. I think what Ms. Bray is trying to say is that girls need to discover themselves by themselves. That it won't happen if they're constantly being pressured to be perfect or if boys are messing with their heads. Which is why I love the arrival of the pirates. By that time, the girls had mostly discovered femininity and it was time to put it to the test. The "pirates" brought the real world to the island.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Ah, that is a really good point.


karen jesus - you people need to tell me when you write really good reviews because sometimes i have my head up my ass and i miss them.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Aww! Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether it is really good or just super okay. I will try to do better, though.


karen it's like a week old!! where have i been?? i gotta prune the old "top friends" list. anyone involved in a RP group - you are out!


message 29: by Meredith (last edited Jul 21, 2011 10:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) hahaha! I am behind on yours, too. But! I started doing that thing where now I have RSS feeds for a few people's "read" or "reviewed" shelves, so I don't have to rely on the regular feed, and I can tell when there's something new. My feed is totally fucked up. It's completely unreliable. I'm pretty sure I'm not even friends with half the people on it, and it's just some annoying prank of Patrick and riva's.


karen i don't know what that means, but it sounds like something i should have. but i have to sleep now, full of grilled cheese and soon to get up for work.... teach me of this later, please....


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Okay. You ask and I will teach. Sweet dreams!


message 32: by Meredith (last edited Jul 22, 2011 06:48AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Yes, totally badass! Good work.

Sorry, I went to sleep too.

You go to the bottom of someone's shelf, like Elizabeth has a "reviewed" shelf, and you click on the RSS button, just to the left of where you can click to the next page.

It makes it come up as an RSS feed for you, which for me shows up on my . . . well, I don't know what you call that thing on Firefox - the place with the buttons of the websites I frequently use. But, if you have a different browser, it probably shows up differently.


message 33: by Meredith (last edited Jul 22, 2011 08:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meredith Holley (Sparrow) It's very convenient because if you haven't clicked on one of the links it shows up differently. So, as long as you only go to the reviews from the RSS feed, you can tell if you've read one or not.

It doesn't work very well with Ceridwen or you because neither of you are as predictable about when you're going to review a book you've read, so sometimes I'll click on one you guys have read, but you haven't reviewed yet. You both need a shelf for "reviewed." Maybe more with Ceridwen than with you because I think sometimes you wait to mark something as read until you've reviewed it? Ahem, this is true of Eh! too, but she's pretty fast with the review if she's going to do one, I think. hint hint, everybody!


Eh?Eh! Hah, chastised! Will get on that pony.


Eh?Eh! twss


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) many thanks!


Eh?Eh! Okay, see "babble-added" shelf for very important future announcements of my deepest, deep, super valuable inner thoughts.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) YAAAY! Good work! Now I can follow you without confusion.


message 39: by Eh?Eh! (last edited Jul 22, 2011 02:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eh?Eh! Hah, without added confusion. There will still be some confusednessity in the babble.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Hmmmm. Well, you can work on that next. ;)


Eh?Eh! Never! It's my hallmark! Whuh? Yes. No! Yes!


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) Okay, if it's a signature move, then I want more of it. I DEMAND CHANGE of any kind. Could you start writing them in blue ink, too?

I'll just be over here demanding things.


Eh?Eh! I gotcher change right here.

[image error]


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) awww yeah! bah dum tsss!


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) I have a lot of respect for that. I think Ceridwen reviews all of the eventually, but she'll mark them as "read" before she reviews them, which I do too, and that throws off the system if there isn't a separate "reviewed" shelf to follow.


message 46: by [deleted user] (new)

I try, but I don't review everything. Plenty of stuff I read doesn't require attention, and then I think I'll do it later, and then I don't. I'm two reviews behind right now, and the books are slipping from my memory, poor things.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) But if you had a "reviewed" shelf, it would solve all of the problems for me. Please conform your shelving to my desires.


message 48: by [deleted user] (new)

Eeek! I missed the part in the thread when I was doing it rong! I will mend my ways.


Meredith Holley (Sparrow) RSS feeds ur doin it rong!


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