Beauty Games: A Review of Beauty Queens and Modelland (and why YA Novels appeal)

Tyra Banks has invented her own version of Hunger Games. No, not her competitive reality TV show America's Next Top Model, but Modelland, her debut novel about a mythical world where girls compete to become supermodels with superpowers.

Modelland, which came out in September, is pure Banks. It's a bit overblown and overly long, with lots of invented model-ly words.  But, it's also fun and silly. Now let's be clear, as an author Banks is no Suzanne Collins, who wrote the Hunger Games trilogy, which is a truly exceptional and riveting series for readers of all ages, and a trenchant commentary on social life, inequality, competition, and competitive reality television.  But Modelland, which clearly has echos of the war games involved in Collins' work, is subversive in its own way. In Modelland (both the physical setting and the novel), girls are the stars and boys are the accessories.  There is definitely an element of girl power, even though looks still matter. And it's not always the most beautiful girl who is the star either (though, of course, it doesn't hurt). There is a focus on female careers, and not leaving for a man; when a girl does leave for a member of the opposite sex it doesn't go so well. In addition to this message of female empowerment Banks slips in more mundane beauty lessons. For instance, through one terrifying challenge the girls learn why they shouldn't share make-up products or buy knock-off products/accessories. Like I said, a bit silly, though with a somewhat useful message.

Award-winning Young Adult author Libba Bray's latest, Beauty Queens, is also a bit silly-- but, like Banks, she promotes a message of subversive girl power even as she talks about beauty.

In Beauty Queens all the contestants in a teen beauty pageant go down in a plane crash on an island.  Only a few survive and those who do have to continue fighting for survival (so, again, a bit of a Hunger Games element)... While still preparing for a possible beauty pageant. Through the experience the girls, and the reader, learn that girls can be innovative and strong, while still wanting to look good and be true to themselves.  There are some jokes and observations about child beauty pageants (my favorite is when contestant/survivor Tiara, who started doing pageants at two weeks old, says she won Grand Supreme and one of the non-traditional state pageant queens responds by asking, "Do you want fries with that?" [page 45]) and competition among girls (“Compete is a rather ugly word, isn’t it?” [page 2]) which give the book a sarcastic edge that some teen readers in particular will appreciate.

It may surprise you that I read and write about so many Young Adult (YA) novels on this blog (for example, these dance novels and Wolitzer's new book on Scrabble tournaments).  But it shouldn't.  The topics covered in YA (especially those about topics I study, like organized sports and kids' activities, dance, beauty pageants, etc.) and the sense of immediacy in the stories make them interesting reads.  A recent piece in The Boston Globe by Meredith Goldstein helps explain why so many recent YA books (think Twilight, which I did read, but just couldn't get into the series itself) have had crossover appeal.

In any case, while Modelland and Beauty Queens are fun reads, if you're going to try out a YA novel for the first time, I definitely recommend the Hunger Games trilogy-- especially before the movies come out.  And if you're still hooked, try Bray's or Banks' take on what I call the "beauty games."