When told that she may have missed her calling as a stand-up comic, Libba Bray said, without skipping a beat, “I’d have to be a sit-down comic. I want the comedy to come to me.” And that’s just what happened with Beauty Queens. The idea came to her from Scholastic editor David Levithan, who told Bray, "Planeload of beauty queens crash on an island.’ I think you should write that book.”
Find more great books that are good for a laugh among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.
“Oh my God! I would kill to write that book!” Bray responded. At the time, she was still writing the Gemma Doyle trilogy, but she started a file and jotted her ideas down until she could give the project her full attention. Here, she tells us about the results:
How did the book evolve from that seed?
I’d been hankering to do a feminist Lord of the Flies, so that was part of it. In the intervening years, things didn’t go so well for women—not just legislatively, but culturally. How did we go from Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air to Keeping Up with the Kardashians?
I remember going into a 7-Eleven and in all the tabloids from People to Us to Star, it was all about who was getting married and who was having a baby. Every single cover. That and the countless rom-coms built around bridesmaids’ dresses and the constant barrage of beauty products and insidious messages directed to women. I wanted to explore that. How did we get here? What does that say about where we are?
You grew up in Texas. Did you know someone like Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins [Miss Texas]?
Yes, absolutely. When I was growing up, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders were vocational training. My mother and I watched Miss America every September. Growing up in Texas, I felt like the standards of beauty were pretty narrow. But the thing is, if you’re going for satire, you have to love it at the same time that you disdain it. There’s a lot about the steel magnolias stereotype that’s both infuriating and inspiring in its way. If you can take a beauty queen and merge her with Anne Richards that’s cool. I wanted to celebrate the kick-butt qualities of those same Texas women.
How did you hit on the voice of the Corporation, which sponsors the story and periodically steps in to comment?
That was the first thing that came to me for this book, the voice of the corporation. I think I was warped from watching Monty Python and National Lampoon from an early age. I’m sure it’s a nod to them somehow. When I really started doing the heavy lifting on the book it was 2008-2009. Wall Street has exploded! We’re broke! And then we got into the BP oil spill. I’m often bemused, but it’s the kind of thing where you have to laugh or you’ll cry. We needed a cheery absurdist tone.
Mary Lou [Miss Nebraska] was such an interesting character because she worked so hard to deny her sexuality.
We are just terrified of female sexuality somehow, the idea that women can own their own bodies and be sexual beings. It makes me crazy, that we label the “good girls” and the “bad girls.” There’s no such thing. Why is it that only girls are called sluts? It was important to me that Mary Lou had thought it through. I wanted there to be all that confusion that Mary Lou has about all the messages we’re given and all the feelings she has inside, because she’s been taught somehow that there’s something dirty and unsafe about the feelings that she has. To have her say I’m good with this, I’m not quite ready for this, this is where I am right now and I don’t feel any shame.
It’s a horrible kind of relief for the girls when they realize the camera crew has perished in the plane wreck, and they can forget about their lip gloss and concentrate on surviving, isn’t it?
It’s that idea of image. They’re bombarded with messages about who they’re supposed to be, they can never get away. It’s in Going Bovine, too, with the reality infomercials—everything from the soft drinks to the shoes you choose. Having worked in advertising, I understand where these ideas are born. We’ll add a dash of aspiration. It’s hard to shut the door on all those images, the constant pounding, and find a quiet space where you can do that hard lifelong work of finding your identity and what you really want. And all that experimentation that has to happen when you’re a teenager, trying things on. That’s why books are so genius, because you can try on different thoughts and feelings and explore those things.