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The Flimsy Feminism of a Pop Culture Makeover

Despite the idea that the makeover gives the protagonist confidence to be herself, she, in the process, still needs to adhere to certain beauty standards

In 1936, a nurse named Barbara Phillips wrote to Mademoiselle magazine, asking for advice on how to improve her looks. “Mademoiselle took up the challenge of making Phillips into a beauty and showcased the makeover in the pages of its magazine, from inadequate before, through the transformation, and finally, into the glamorous after,” wrote Julie A. Willett in The American Beauty Industry Encyclopedia. “If one ordinary reader could be transformed by the makeover, then the reader of the magazine could herself follow the instructions and become beautiful.” 


Phillips then became known as the first ‘Made-Over Girl’ of Mademoiselle, and thus began the ‘makeover’ as we know it today, the ‘makeover’ as it appears in women’s magazines and countless reality shows. The 84-year old practice has always been the stuff of fairy tales: take a plain Jane, presumably someone who’s not “beautiful,” or “beautiful” by the times’ current beauty standards, and make her so. But the concept itself was hardly invented in Mademoiselle, a women’s magazine “for smart young women” that featured fiction by Shirley Jackson and had been guest edited by writers like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath.


One of the earliest known makeovers in pop culture can be found in Pygmalion, a late Edwardian era play by George Bernard Shaw, and the source material from which the musical My Fair Lady was adapted (and She’s All That and The Duff inspired by). Eliza, a young flower vendor from Covent Garden meets Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, and she takes lessons from him in order to “talk like a lady.” Eliza’s always dreamed of getting out of poverty, and getting rid of her cockney accent, she believes, is a stepping stone to reaching that dream.



In 1942, the film Now, Voyager starring Bette Davis was released in theaters, and it, too, featured a makeover. At the beginning of the film, Charlotte Vale is an unattractive recluse of a spinster, tortured and traumatized by her mother’s emotional manipulation. After spending some time away from her, Charlotte blossoms into a beautiful woman, both in appearance and demeanor, shocking her abusive mother. 


These early examples of makeovers in plays and movies are just one side of the makeover’s many faces in pop culture. As teen movies and romantic comedies of the early 2000s grew in popularity, as did the makeover—so much so that it would become its own trope, giving rise to lists upon lists of the “best” and the “worst,” ranked and unranked, and what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” 


Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway)’s princess makeover in The Princess Diaries is seen by many to be one of the less desirable kinds of makeovers, especially as shown in the media. Before finding out she was a princess, Mia had been a regular girl. She wore Docs, rode her scooter home from school with her best friend Lilly, rock-climbed in her free time, and shot darts at balloons with her mom. She also wore glasses, had a full head of curly hair, and her nail polish was often chipped. Not becoming of a princess, her grandmother Clarisse (Julie Andrews) would decide.

 


And so one of the most iconic makeover scenes in film came to life: Mia’s hair was now smooth and silky straight, her glasses replaced by contact lenses, and her eyebrows—the lovechild of Brooke Shields and Frida Kahlo, according to royal stylist Paolo—tamed and shaped. But Mia’s transformation caused her an even greater deal of anxiety and distress, feeling the need to hide her new locks under a bucket hat. This makeover forced her to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, even as the film framed it to look like it would give her confidence. 


There have been some hailed to be good, like Toula (Nia Vardalos)’s transformation in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in which the makeover had been her idea. It was a step to becoming the woman she’s always wanted to be, no longer the frumpy, drab, beige-wearing 30-year old seeking her father’s approval. Her makeover was a pivotal moment in the film. Most importantly, it was character-driven, meant to serve Toula and Toula’s wants and desires, rather than please anyone else besides herself.



But even in an “empowering” transformation like Toula’s, or Charlotte’s, or even Eliza’s (if looked at a certain way), there’s just something so inherently flimsy and tenuous about the feminism behind a movie makeover, even a “good” one. Despite the idea that the makeover gives the protagonist—oftentimes a young woman, and always played by an actually beautiful, slender-bodied actress—confidence to be herself, she, in the process, still needs to adhere to certain beauty standards, and the makeover itself is still so often seen from male gaze. 


That is why in recent years, there has been a growing number of women who’ve pledged their allegiance to Grease 2 starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield, because instead of a young woman changing everything about herself to please a man, it’s the opposite that happens. Michael Carrington (Caulfield), an English exchange student, builds a new persona to get Stephanie Zinone (Pfeiffer) to fall in love with him—a complete reversal of the trope that has become prevalent in teen films and chick flicks. 


The makeover has long been rooted in femininity and heterosexuality, in pleasing a male audience and feeding fantasy to a female one. It’s for this reason that shows like Queer Eye, both its original version as well as its reboot, are revolutionary to a certain extent. It takes several aspects of a straight man’s way of life, and makes it over, and by queer individuals no less. 


Pop culture’s beloved makeover trope has always produced a great and unavoidable contradiction. One has to suspend their disbelief early on in a movie featuring a makeover scene; one has to accept that this movie star is unattractive and plain-looking, so that when that Mirror Moment arrives—you know the one—the swelling music and the look of disbelief on her face are even more sellable. This is satirized in Death Becomes Her, when Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) first looks into the mirror after claiming eternal youth from Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). Her breasts physically and literally lifting, her butt growing bigger, and her skin becoming smoother and more taut.



But look through a list of the greatest movie makeovers of all time, and it’s easy to notice one thing. A bulk of the items, more often than not, come from movies no later than 2010. As makeovers have become an iconic and distinct trope in many romantic comedies, they seem to be diminishing, or at the very least, changing. Romcoms nowadays are metamorphosing into something different, moving further and further away from the formulas of the early aughts. With this change in style, it’s easy to wonder: Will movie makeovers as we know them soon meet their end?


Whatever the answer to that may be, many of these film transformations follow the idea that these women could never be comfortable in their own skin because of society’s standards, and would never find confidence if they stay the way they look—if they kept the glasses, the unruly hair, the unkempt eyebrows. But the truth of the matter is that women, unruly hair and unkempt eyebrows or not, have always been more than just their looks—they are the sum of their thoughts, actions, and words. 


Makeovers have their place in film and in real life, and so long as they come from a place of self-love and knowing one’s self-worth—like Toula, or even Andy from The Devil Wears Prada—then that makes all the difference. But if you ask me, so often, women are already beautiful just the way they are, especially if they feel good and happy with themselves, both inside and out. 


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Lead photo from IMdB