[CN: transmisogyny, anti-black racism]
A while back i saw a tumblr post about how LORD OF THE FLIES cant testify to human nature since it was all boys, and that if a group of schoolgirls had crash landed on an island things would have worked out a lot better, and a response brought BEAUTY QUEENS to my attention. The point is actually directly addressed in the middle of the novel, and indeed things do go quite better than the one with the conch shell.
For all the problems of beauty pageants being crass commercial objectification, people still enjoy the camp; the author says as much in the acknowledgements. That’s kind of what this reading experience is like. It’s funny, darkly so! The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense but it plays like a saturday morning cartoon or an extra campy Bond movie.
There are intercalary bits, such as dossiers on the main cast which show how pageant officials sanitize the girls’ individuality, and commercials that are only slightly exaggerated from our twisted late capitalist patriarchal culture. A mom lifts the product advertised out of her load of laundry.
There are also footnotes to explain the pop-cultural references in this story world:
Loch Lomond, the sexy and manly spy in a series of popular Scottish crime capes. Known for his fancy gadgets, fast cars, beautiful women who often end up dead…
Sandecs, a denim line sewn by small Peruvian children and adorned with the face of one’s celebrity avatar on the back pockets. Each pair is blessed by droplets of local holy water said to ward off unhappiness.
Out of the fourteen survivors, ten are rounded characters and the text spends a little time on each one. The most interesting for me are the arcs of Nicole, Miss Colorado, who’s black, and the narrator conveys what she’s had to do to survive in white spaces:
Nicole did what she’d been taught since she was little and her parents had moved into an all-white neighborhood: She smiled and made herself seem as friendly and nonthreatening as possible. It’s what she did when she met the parents of her friends. There was always that split second — something almost felt rather than seen — when the parents’ faces would register a tiny shock, a palpable discomfort with Nicole’s “otherness.” And Nicole would smile wide and say how nice it was to come over. She would call the parents Mr. or Mrs., never by the first names. Their suspicion would ebb away, replaced by an unspoken but nonetheless palpable pride in her “good breeding,” for which they should take no credit but did anyway.
That last bit of this tacit collective ownership of black girls by white adults…man.
Her relationship with Shanti, Miss California, who’s Indian, was nice since it emphasizes how Asians are anti-black, and how the competition culture overrides black-brown solidarity — they both know there’s only room for one brown body in the finals. Shanti herself has to fabricate an assimilation narrative.
For all the camp, Petra, Miss Rhode Island, and her experience as a transwoman was too real. Shanti horribly tries to out her to the rest of the group in order to try to get her disqualified (many of them still assume the pageant is on once they are rescued) and refuses to use her pronoun. As it usually happens, the first assumption is that transwomen are deceivers, pretenders, even though it is when such people are trying to pass for cis to make others comfortable that is the true deception. But Petra concedes the point by making an equivocation — everybody here is pretending to some extent!
Taylor, Miss Texas, assumes leadership of the group for survival, and she’s by far the most gung-ho about the Miss Teen dream pageant, the ur-text of which is Ladybird Hope, a jingoistic TV personality who talks about following “the rules set down for women throughout the ages.”
But they survive quite adroitly, using their individual skills accumulated bc girls have to be pleasers while the menz fail upwards. Shanti designs sustainable food/irrigation systems, Jennifer (Miss Michigan, lesbian, juvenile delinquent in the pageant as a correction plan) makes weapons, they build huts, they catch and cook fish.
The book lost me a little in the third act when the rock-star pirates show up. Their captain’s name is spelled the way St. John is pronounced in JANE EYRE. He and Petra exchange a lot of 19th century English lit jokes.
The bad guys are a massive corporation and honestly their storyline squares pretty well with how neoliberalism actually plays out. They overthrow a caricature of a third-world nation which elected a socialist leader, putting a dictator in place, and then sanction the country and sell him arms on the sly.
My biggest objection is that the corporation’s name is The Corporation. Surely even one as massive and nationalized as this one would still have a zippy name. Although i dont know how i could top WALL-E’s Buy’N’Large.
Also Sosie, Miss Illinois, who’s deaf and bi, has a “trying out both genders” narrative that rubbed me the wrong way.
Reading this alongside THE LOST SCRAPBOOK meant seeing two references to the Watusi, which was pretty wild.
Tiara, Miss Mississippi, who grew up in a fundamentalist household, and was going thru pageants since toddler age, was made to do a Christian pole-dance, the combination of moral purity/sexualization of young girls, the madonna/whore pressure that isn’t separable, that isn’t even much of an exaggeration, with the father-daughter purity pledge events that go down in this country.
Overall, entertaining. Adina, Miss New Hampshire, Jewish, and the embodiment in the group of second wave feminism, knows what is fucked up about this institution but her way is not shown as the only way. The other girls like makeup and face glitter and shopping and dating boys. And while boys fall apart in the island scenario, the girls use it as a crucible to realize their full and true selves, without society’s surveillance, and support each other as the white man’s world continues its plunge into madness beyond satire.