A Defence of Makeovers

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The makeover. It’s hard to imagine an uplifting lady-film without one – from Cinderella through My Fair Lady to Mean Girls, Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, a dramatic change in attire and makeup has always been a symbol for the changing fortunes of our favourite female characters. And, while aged 11-15 we all watched in awe as our on-screen heroes Sandy, Mia, Cady and Allison (you remember, the angry one from The Breakfast Club) were shimmied into flattering outfits and coral lipstick, it’s hard to reconcile this linking of personal growth and boyfriends/mascara with modern feminism.

As we post-preteens now know, being a woman isn’t all about going to prom and plucking our eyebrows. We can be women no matter what – in our baggy black clothes, non-princessy haircuts or prim Sandy milkmaid dresses. We don’t need to fit in with the Pink Ladies or (school) royalty to grow up, and we don’t need the attention of the richest or most popular man either. Yet when I watch (and rewatch) these films, I can never find it in my heart to wish away that moment where the heroine stuns everyone into silence with her new hair, new clothes, and new smile.

After feeling guilty about this, I began to realise that maybe this is because these makeovers aren’t as simple as they first seem. The makeover montage comes bound up in the film’s context, and that uplifting feeling of seeing someone transformed perhaps has deeper roots than the appreciation of pink miniskirts and perms.

While new looks are often suggested or encouraged by other characters, they tend to also show the leading ladies taking control of their situations and growing into new identities. Dirty Dancing’s Baby uses her clothes and dancing to show her parents that she’s grown up, while Cady’s fashion shifts in Mean Girls show her first trying out one identity, then another.

The way we present ourselves is a type of language. It allows us to become part of a group, and shows the world the thousand minute decisions we have made about ourselves. Whenever we wear, or apply, or refuse to apply, we are sending a message. And while making huge sacrifices to be a Pink Lady is certainly a bad thing, using small signifiers to show the world that these are your people, and this is your choice, is not.

This idea is backed up by identity theory. For Lacan, language is enforced upon us by others, yet we consent to its meanings and its role in the construction of our identity because without it we have no hope of communication or relationships. We tend to view acts of ‘beauty’ as negatives – not shaving our legs leave us open to ridicule, not having the right clothes would be social suicide, we are denying parts of ourselves with these endless rules – but there’s also something active in it too. Wearing the clothes of your friends, or a particular culture, is an act of membership.

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In these makeover narratives, that ‘before’ stage is not a neutral, peer pressure-free haven. Characters like Sandy or Baby at first show a reluctance to belong or engage, and as much as they are excluded by others, they’re also insecure and restricted by other factors.

Baby is restricted by her parents’ narrow worldview, which looks down on the hotel staff for their race and behaviour. The Princess Diaries’ Mia self-identifies as an ugly freak. Vivian in Pretty Woman is sure that men will never respect her; The Breakfast Club’s Allison won’t speak, because she’s so sure she will never have friends. Film is a visual medium, and these makeovers are a helpful visual symbol of these characters’ decision to become part of the world on their own terms.

And that’s where boys come in. In Grease, for example, there’s certainly an element of Sandy changing to fit in with Danny and his friends. But you could also view her change as a decision to go for the relationship, and as her showing a willingness to escape what may have been her parents’ worldview in the first place.

Much as we’d like to deny it, how we look is part of our identity. We make hundreds of decisions every day about how we appear to others, and these decisions make possible hundreds of connections and recognitions. Maybe we should start viewing this as a gift, rather than another tool of oppression.

In The Breakfast Club, when ‘basket case’ Allison reappears with her hair off her face, dark clothes replaced by light, the first thing love interest Andrew says is: “It’s so different. You can see your face.” A transformation brings with it the suggestion that this is a change I have chosen, and from it you can learn something about who I really am. So rest easy: your nostalgia-trip film binges aren’t un-feminist after all.

Follow Barbara Speed on Twitter: @bspeed8

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