Movie makeovers: why does this outdated trope still exist?

What about creating characters who learn to accept themselves and other people, despite their differences? Is that so much to ask?
By Bridget Hamilton  •  Dec 8, 2017 at 11:27am  •  Body Image, Film & TV, Social Issues

Considering it was released in 2001, you might forgive The Princess Diaries for its loveable but dubious plot line. However, Mia Thermopolis is one of hundreds of female leads that get the same “geeky girl gets a makeover” treatment – a trope that is still being rolled out in 2017.

In November Netflix released a film called ‘A Christmas Prince’ – the tale of an “aspiring young journalist sent abroad to get the latest scoop on Aldovia’s Royal Family. Posing as the Converse-wearing commoner who tutors young Princess Emily, Amber Moore wins the heart of dashing Prince Richard – but not before the palace’s top designers, hairdressers and makeup artists have been set to work on her. This trope is so ingrained in modern society that it’s shoehorned into perfectly good films without reason and without a second thought.


It all started with Cinderella

It will probably come as no surprise that early folk tales and fairy stories don’t exactly give women empowering roles. In the earliest variation of Cinderella (around 7BC), Cinderella is a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. In the Italian version Cenerentola (first published in 1634), Cinderella actually loses her slipper when she’s running away from the king pursuing her (for the third time). This literal rags to riches tale has formed the basis of so many stories we consume thousands of years later.


Why can’t Danny like Sandy for who she is? © Paramount Pictures


The fallout for women

The consequence of makeover movies is pretty dire. Not only does it give the impression that women have to change themselves to become loveable (particularly if you don’t subscribe to typical beauty standards), these films often concurrently paint “beautiful” women as unintelligent and uninteresting (think Karen in Mean Girls) – meaning whichever side of the coin you’re on, your personality is two-dimensional. Only the occasional film – like Miss Congeniality – attempts to give the popular girls some sort of character development.

I asked a few friends – who like me, had grown up in the 90s and early 2000s – whether they thought these movies were damaging and it was a resounding yes. One told me: “I personally ‘transformed’ myself more than once to be accepted throughout school – once id started wearing fake tan and straightened my hair, in my perception, boys started to listen to me and think I was funny. Eventually i did away with it all for a while, makeup, the lot – just so that i could move past it and realise people liked me for who i was. Now i have healthy balance of doing what the fuck I want when I want, but I’m getting stirred writing this message… I’m 30 next year and its been a hell of a long road to self acceptance.”

Another added, “even in non-makeover movies women often have to change to become more acceptable… or they suddenly give in to their romantic / hormonal urges. I think it’s just a symptom of the wider fear by men of women not giving a shit about being pleasing to them and being better than them at things.”


Even She’s The Man’s Viola gives in and wears a dress at the end © Dreamworks Pictures


So will makeover movies ever get old?

Films are supposed to take you on a journey and themes like self-improvement and transformation are integral to that. However, it would be nice if more directors realised that superficial changes like getting contact lenses are outdated and overused. What about creating characters who learn to accept themselves and other people, despite their differences?

The fact that A Christmas Prince was made my Netflix – creators of empowering female-centric series such as Orange is the New Black – was particularly disappointing. It just goes to show that even content creators who pave the way for new and important narratives sometimes fall back on stereotypes without considering how damaging they are.

I’m pleased that recently many children’s films have created positive stories about adversity and are all the more successful for it. Brave‘s Merida is a wonderfully strong female character – without a hair straightener in sight – while in How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s story captivates and inspires young boys who use their head more than their fists.

I’m not suggesting that we throw away our nostalgic DVD collections and stop occasionally dreaming about becoming the head of state in some miniscule snow-dusted European country. However, it no longer takes a weathered old stereotype to do well at the box office – so in spite of their long legacy, I hope movie makeovers are confined to history very soon.

About the Author

Bridget was born in Gravesend, Kent and has a Masters in Radio Production and Management. She founded Verbal Remedy in 2013 and has also produced content for the Independent, Huffington Post and the BBC.

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