We Need To Talk About Makeover Stories
A couple of nights ago, I watched The Princess Dairies. It’s the makeover story of makeover stories: socially-awkward and frizzy-haired Anne Hathaway discovers she’s a real-life princess and must begin training for her new royal role. By the end of the movie, she’s gone from a nerdy teenager stumbling in high heels to an elegant, modelesque princess.
It used to be one of my favorite movies as a kid — Hathaway’s extreme makeover was satisfying to watch and made me envision what my life would be like if I found out I was secretly a princess.
This time it only left a bitter taste in my mouth. It made me think a lot about makeover stories in general: She’s All That, Cinderella, Grease, Miss Congeniality, and Captain America: The First Avenger (just to name a few). Our culture loves to watch the ugly duckling transform into the beautiful swan — or, in many cases, the shy, geeky kid transform into the irresistible hottie.
And, as satisfying as it is to watch a beautiful actress get made into a socially-awkward nerd and then back into a beautiful actress, we have to ask ourselves: are these movies sending the wrong message?
Be yourself…but better?
While the circumstances might vary, all makeover stories function around the same idea: be yourself but better. Consider the first Captain America movie. Steve Rogers has the heart of the lion, but a frail body and health issues prevent him from getting to show that.
Then, halfway through the movie, he’s miraculously changed into Captain Steve Rogers — the bulky, glistening heartthrob with bulging muscles and a six-pack. His newfound strength gives him the opportunity to finally make a difference in the war, and get the girl. He’s still himself…but better.
On the surface, Captain America and all our other favorite makeover classics seem to be sending a positive message about embracing who you are. They use physical transformation as a catalyst for mental change and character development.
But, beneath the generic cliches about inner beauty being what really matters, these makeover movies are also telling us something else too: you only deserve love when you’re at your best.
Although Steve Rogers becomes friends with Peggy Carter early on in the movie, the sparks don’t begin to fly until after he’s made his startling physical transformation.
There isn’t much romance in the first Princess Diaries, but the movie makes it obvious that “nerdy” Anne Hathaway doesn’t have any suitors lining up.
Even Cinderella, one of the first makeover movies in existence, doesn’t meet her prince until she’s dolled up at a party.
All of this begs the question: why do these characters have to look like made-over models before they can deserve love? Why does the overweight girl need to lose weight before she can find Prince Charming? Why does the scrawny guy have to gain bulging muscles before he can get the girl?
Say what you want, but these movies aren’t spreading the message of “be yourself” — they’re telling us that we aren’t going to get what (or who) we want unless we’ve become the most attractive versions of ourselves.
That isn’t empowering, it’s degrading. If you think about it, most of us aren’t our most attractive selves — we don’t have secret government technology to make us superhumans or an entire styling team to make us over every morning. There’s no fairy godmother hiding in the bushes with a designer gown.
Most of us are just average people who sometimes look great and sometimes look like we just rolled out of bed — and that’s okay. Your self-worth and desirability shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not you look like Anne Hathaway after four hours of hair and makeup.
Can some makeover stories be positive?
Although The Princess Diaries and Captain America fail to meet my expectations, there may be some makeover movies that can spread positivity without making us feel inferior.
Consider the cult-classic, Rocky: the washed up Philadelphia boxer undergoes strenuous training until he’s able to beat his opponent, Creed, and make a name for himself. There’s even a romance in the movie, but Rocky doesn’t need to beat Creed before he gets the girl. She likes him long before he’s “at his best”.
Rocky and Captain America share a lot of similarities but there’s a startling difference between them. In the beginning, both Rocky and Steve Rogers are underestimated by their peers. In order to accomplish their goals, they must change. While Rocky undergoes months of training, Steve’s problems are solved within minutes of being locked in a magical-technological machine.
Once they undergo the changes, Rocky and Steve do accomplish their goals. However, there are some differences with the love stories. While Rocky’s relationship with Adrian starts long before he makes it big-time, Peggy Carter doesn’t view Steve as more than a friend until after he’s been made over into a male model.
As similar as they may be, the difference between these movies is that, while Captain America is a makeover movie, Rocky is a transformation movie. Makeover movies use a character’s physical appearance as a catalyst for change — Steve Rogers doesn’t get the girl till he’s buff, Cinderella doesn’t meet the Prince till she’s dolled up, and Anne Hathaway doesn’t get a fairytale ending until after she looks like a princess.
Transformation movies, on the other hand, focus on character development rather than physical attributes. Rocky’s training might give him a six-pack, but the audience is more interested in the kind of fighter he’s become after all of his hard work. And, Rocky doesn’t have to become the “best” version of himself before he deserves love.
Transformation movies center around mental changes rather than physical ones. Makeover movies, on the other hand, simply expect character development to happen as the result of a makeover.
Let’s make transformation movies — not makeover ones
In real life, the majority of us aren’t magazine-cover models — and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with improving yourself, but you don’t need to undergo a major physical makeover before you deserve love.
That’s why transformation movies are so empowering — they remind us that mental change is always more important than physical change.
As far as makeover movies go, it might be time to move on — as much as our culture loves them, these films will only make us feel like inferior ugly ducklings rather than beautiful swans.