From Ugly Duckling to Swan: Limitations of the Teen Makeover Film

By Nuha Hassan | June 30, 2021

Makeover movies often focus on female characters that they deem passive, and lack confidence in how they dress and present themselves. Yet, when they go through the transformation from an ugly duckling to a swan, because of their new feminine presence, they are empowered. It is a battle of femininity; between the supposedly frumpy protagonist and the characters who desperately want them to change. The makeover movie teases and negotiates to present the protagonist more desirably not only for their confidence, but also for their romantic interests. But when a girl with frizzy hair and glasses is transformed into the perfect image of femininity and beauty, do these movies value and nurture the character’s other traits at the end, or is it just their successful assimilation to patriarchal standards of beauty? 

In She’s All That (1999) future Prom King Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr) accepts a bet by his friend, Dean (Paul Walker) to turn the dorky, clumsy, and unpopular art student Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) into Prom Queen. The road, however, is not as easy as he first assumes. When Zack first attempts to befriend Laney, she dodges his advances. When Laney gets invited to a party, she pretends to be busy and doesn’t go. Eventually, Laney’s walls begin to come down and, with the help of Zack’s sister, she receives a makeover. With the “right look”, Laney becomes a serious contender for Prom Queen, and gains the attention of Dean, who asks her out just to spite Zack. While Laney is too wise for Dean’s unhonorable intentions, her makeover clearly makes her desirable, and worthy of Zack’s affections.

Rachael Leigh Cook as Laney and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Zack, pre-Makeover, in She’s All That, dir. Robert Iscove (1999). Miramax.

In Garry Marshall’s The Princess Diaries (2001), Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hatheway) is a clumsy and shy American high school teenager who learns that she is the princess of a European country called Genovia. After her father’s death, Mia is the sole heir to the throne and her estranged grandmother, Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) teaches her the etiquettes and social behaviours of a royal. As part of her royal lessons, Mia receives a makeover which immediately catches the attention of a lot of schoolmates. When her secret gets out, she transforms from an invisible student to a popular teen royal. Throughout the film, Mia deals with the pressures of being a royal, and trying to fit in an environment where she was once branded a “freak”. In the end, she finally learns to accept herself and accepts the role that she is meant to serve. 

These makeover films represent how female adolescents can become the embodiment of feminine beauty and desire. They work to conform to a reality that takes pleasure in viewing the female body as patriarchal objects, rather than accepting who they are before. 

Mia’s makeover scene. Disney.

At the start of The Princess Diaries, Mia was not seen as desirable or pretty by the people in her school, and she was invisible to almost everybody. Her school principal didn’t know her name, and at one point Mia complained that one of the students sat on her again, indicating that this incident had happened before. With her bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair, Mia is a character that was perceived as an unattractive, clumsy and anxious adolescent. She is at odds with the subject of femininity until her transformation, implying that the makeover was fundamental to her growth and her journey. The negative aspect of this is that Mia has no autonomy over any of the decisions that were made for her. The makeover is arranged by her grandmother – who was bewildered at her appearance when they first met – subjecting Mia to be transformed to Clarisse’s satisfaction. Furthermore, Mia’s makeover scene was played for comedy, where the hairdresser screamed at the sight of her and looked at her in disgust (he also states that he has fixed people who have looked way worse than Mia). Even Mia’s masculine behaviour is scorned upon by her grandmother, who teaches her how a royal woman should behave, sit, and wave. This is not only constructed by patriarchal norms but also portrays a performance of femininity that is popular within teen makeover movies; turning a girl from an ugly duckling into a swan. After Mia’s transformation, her veil of invisibility is lifted and she finally gets noticed by everyone; even her crush whom she daydreams about having a “foot popping kiss” with. But, when her wish comes true, it instead turns into a disaster for her, and a moment of glory for him. 

These makeover tropes can have a somewhat positive aspect. Mia, who was once shy, stubborn, and nervous when giving out speeches, is able to overcome her fear of public speaking after her makeover. The girl with frizzy hair, glasses and bushy eyebrows truly did gain more confidence, but what do these representations mean for the audience?

Makeover movies emphasize an idealised version of femininity. While Mia has to go through a transformation, the validation of her peers and grandmother to gain the confidence to stand up to her bullies, Laney’s transformation is rooted in becoming the subject of desire. At the beginning of She’s All That, Laney wears mismatched clothes, ties her hair in a braid, wears glasses and doesn’t apply any makeup to her face. When Laney gets a makeover from Zack’s sister Mac (Anna Paquin), she similarly lacks agency in that matter. Yet, unlike Mia’s makeover treatment, Laney’s transformation is not subject to a comedic sequence. Rather, her makeover reveal is a shot where the camera pans up her legs as she walks down the stairs in a short red dress and new hair. When the camera cuts to Zack’s expression, it is clear that he is flustered by her transformation. As Laney walks down, she trips in her heels and Zack catches her. Not only does this allow Laney to literally fall for Zack, but gives an indication that even though Laney looks different, she is still her clumsy self inside. 

Laney looking absolutely thrilled about her makeover. Miramax.

The significance and superiority of beauty and femininity is portrayed in this way because Mia and Laney are characters who present themselves in a way different from the norm. Laney spends her time painting political art pieces and making bold statements about art and Mia, though not outright political, still cares about environmental causes that her best friend Lily (Heather Matarazzo) is passionate about. Their transformations help the characters gain confidence and learn to stand up for themselves, and in the end, Mia and Laney learn to overcome their fears. But do they lose a part of themselves as they submit themselves to the performance of femininity? Both of these characters share an intellectual mind and are self-aware of their surroundings and bad people. But when their glasses disappear and their clothes change, due to the makeovers they submit to the conventional beauty standards that Zack and Queen Clarisse desired. 

Makeover movies are a product of coming-of-age tales portraying a different standard of beauty and femininity that their characters are made to fit into. For The Princess Diaries, it is to be more royal; for She’s All That, it’s to fit in. While the films aim to inspire confidence and self-awareness, the films miss the mark when it comes to agency, due to the manipulation of the female body and mind seen throughout. Initially, Laney and Mia’s inadequacy and lack of desire are denied and judged from a patriarchal lens. Their performance and behaviour are then fitted into a manner that fits the ‘right’ kind of femininity. The makeover protagonist is only ever seen as valuable when she is transformed into a beautiful swan, not when she is the passive and stubborn duckling. Those are the kinds of traits that are important within a patriarchal society, and these movies, which remain popular, support that kind of message. 

Nowadays, there are not many makeover films that are as memorable as iconic as The Princess Diaries, She’s All That and even A Cinderella Story (2004), to name a few. Possibly, one of the reasons why is that storytellers — and audiences — are more aware of what is considered empowering and degrading, even if for Mia and Laney it is their inner journey that matters at the end. At the same time, makeover stories function around the same ideas — to be yourself but better — and maybe these are not the kinds of messages that storytellers want to tell anymore. Makeover movies imply that a woman’s worth only lies with how she looks and not her inner beauty. Considering all of what is being said about makeover films, Netflix’s upcoming project, He’s All That, which is a remake of She’s All That, is set in gender-flipping characters, where an influencer takes up the challenge to turn the biggest loser in their high school to Prom King. While the original had problematic stereotypes and enforced patriarchal ideas of femininity, will these themes be repeated in the remake? It would be interesting to see a new cultural and contemporary twist to a trope that has it’s issues, or perhaps, if the new remake enforces these themes. Maybe it’s time for makeover films to end. 

Nuha Hassan is a writer, animator and photographer. She studied Master of Media at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter @auxiliarity.

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