“Good Girl” Turns Dateable: The Movie Makeover Trope
Issue 13, Volume 111
If you’ve ever watched a rom-com, then you’re probably familiar with the helpless, nerdy girl trope that has polluted Hollywood for decades. Being too untamed to find a respectable man, she must endure a series of shopping sprees, outfit changes, and drastic haircuts to finally reveal her new and improved self in a dramatic staircase descent, prom night entrance, or school hallway strut. This “movie makeover” is the film industry’s female equivalent of a man’s superhero transformation. Think Peter Parker, but instead of spider webs and superhuman strength, the woman gets four-inch heels and a blowout.
Often, these makeovers are used as a method to suppress a woman’s individuality and please a third-party “transformer.” In the film “Pretty Woman” (1990), Vivian Ward, a broke sex worker, meets Edward Lewis, an affluent businessman, who hires her to be his fake girlfriend. Before meeting Lewis, Ward unabashedly flaunts messy hair and promiscuous clothing, but Lewis tells her she “could be so much more.” Like a knight in shining armor, he swoops in and finances her high-end makeover. She replaces her wardrobe with satin gloves, lace-trimmed hats, and fitted dresses that satisfy Lewis’s desires. Transformations like Ward’s promote a sexist and classist idea of beauty, declaring that the only way a woman can be respected in this world is by wearing overpriced designer clothing. In fact, it takes a movie makeover for Ward to be treated with respect from high-end store managers and hotel concierges, creating the impression that expensive beauty equates admiration. While a physical transformation can aid an emotional one, Ward and other female protagonists seem undeserving of viewers’ respect until they have the wealth and beauty to support their emotional development.
Whether it be Allison Reynolds ditching her grunge mullet for a pink, flowery headband in “The Breakfast Club” (1985) or Tai Frasier trading her flannel for a plaid skirt set in “Clueless” (1995), these movie makeover scenes act as a way to fix society’s misfits instead of accepting them for who they are, declaring that a woman is not worthy of appreciation until she undergoes a metamorphosis from an unpalatable free spirit to a polished Hollywood beauty. This message is especially harmful to the young female audience, who assumes that the way to correct their flaws is through physical alterations. Even more damaging is that these physical alterations always involve the hyper-sexualization of actresses playing the roles of young women, such as Regina George or Cady Heron in “Mean Girls” (2004). Our film industry ingrains a superficial meaning of self-worth into girls’ minds, permanently damaging their individuality in exchange for societal acceptance.
The problem is not the movie makeovers themselves but the way they are portrayed. There’s no issue with self-care and luxury, but many of these makeovers lack self-interest as they are always initiated by and for a third party, whether that be a man or a popular friend. These films fail to recognize that true transformation is not physical. At the end of the day, the glamorous makeup and high-end outfit will be taken off, and the character will be left with the same clumsy and improper personality that the “transformer” tried to hide. Whatever emotional enlightenment that occurred in union with the physical changes is hardly shown. As soon as the man is secured, the credits start to roll. This portrayal affirms the notion that all you need is a new look and the right man to fix your problems, which exacerbates patriarchal and sexist values and is especially problematic for young viewers.
There are ways to display character development without confining a woman’s worth to her appearance. A perfect example of this depiction is “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), a film that centers around an intelligent feminist named Kat Stratford, who falls in love with the “bad boy,” Patrick Verona. In the midst of their love affair, both Stratford and Verona have emotional and physical transformations, but neither force them to change who they are at their cores in order to win the love of the other. Similarly, “Juno” (2007) highlights the life of a fiery, independent teenager who falls back in love with her high school boyfriend and her child’s father, Paulie Bleeker, without ever changing her hairstyle or buying a new dress. Neither Stratford nor Juno MacGuff have to mask their intelligence or assertiveness to become more approachable to men, and that’s how transformation should be approached in film. More filmmakers need to understand that character development does not rely on a girl ditching her glasses for contacts or sneakers for stilettos but instead finding self-love and independence.