Emerson is clever, not pretty, because everyone knows that you can only be one or the other. Because she’s clever, she’s not popular like the other girls at school, but at least she isn’t as shallow as them.
When Emerson’s mind gets transplanted into the body of a world-famous, beautiful (and therefore vapid, selfish, and superficial) supermodel, she has to struggle with new social commitments, living a life she has no memory of, and everybody thinking that she’s dead.
There’s not much actual story in this book – the lead-up to the body-swap and the immediate aftermath are the major events. There’s no resolution to any of the plot-hooks thrown out, not even an attempted resolution. This book – the first of a series – is almost entirely set-up.
The potential plots that the book could have covered are vast and vary wildly. There are three separate romances that could have been developed. There’s a corporate espionage plot, a science-fiction dystopia plot, a high school popularity plot. Despite throwing out interesting plot lines with wild abandon, the angle that Meg Cabot seems most interested in developing is not concerned with the immortal plutocracy, or the shadowy organisation controlling Emerson’s every move, but about how attractive people are the worst.
I strongly object to the binary presented by the book, and it is presented completely straight-faced, with no sign of complexity or nuance. Normally, you expect that a book that starts with a clear smart/attractive binary will be concerned with demonstrating the inaccuracy of that divide. This is not the case in Airhead; all attractive people are either stupid or cruel. Models are as vapid as the stereotypes, cheerleaders jockey for position and have no sincere moments. You can tell when someone has lost all their individuality because the character has a mainstream haircut.
Emerson gets to be both smart and attractive, but only because that’s the central conceit. Even with her intelligence, she’s not a particularly nice person; the story lampshades how she is so much less shallow and more considerate than the models around her, but is seemingly completely blind to her inner monologue of contempt and petty judgement. It’s hypocritical to criticise people for making sweeping social judgements and then spend a lot of your time calling a dead girl a slut.
The two dimmest characters end up being the most sympathetic, simply because they aren’t cruel and are always well-intentioned. I don’t get the impression that that was a deliberate choice by the author – you’re clearly meant to buy immediately into Emerson’s world view of smart people and self-obsessed zombies. There’s no point where Emerson realises she’s been misjudging people; the closest to that is when she realises that the fashion industry does involve some actual work.
In fairness to Airhead, it’s a rapid read and it is quite engaging, if only because you want to find out if any of the plot hooks are actually going to get resolved. The characters are clearly differentiated, which is something of an achievement for an author who is refusing to give most of her characters more than one trait.
I can’t get past the overall worldview in this book. It’s the mindset of a lonely 13-year-old having a tantrum, deciding that everyone except her is a glassy-eyed drone. Everyone goes through a phase of such things, but you’re supposed to grow out of it. The author is not 13, or even close to that age; there’s no excuse for still thinking like this. There’s something to be said for targeting fiction towards your intended audience, but that doesn’t mean buying into the most unreasonable parts of their paradigm. You can write a book for teenagers, about things teenagers are interested in, without fully endorsing playground psychology.
I think Airhead is intended to be a sort-of power fantasy. There’s lots of glitz and glamour and fame and fortune and other alliterative clichés. I can see how, if the underlying paradigm weren’t quite so obviously toxic, this would a fun form of escapism. However, there’s a constant and undeniable thread throughout saying that attractiveness and intelligence and mutually exclusive. There’s nothing particularly escapist about being constantly beaten over the head with the idea that you’ll never be lovable without experimental brain surgery, and if you are already lovable, you don’t really deserve to be.
This is a book about how shallow society is, and it is completely unaware that it is exactly the kind of shallow, preening thing it pretends to criticise.