by Abigail Rosenthal
Photography by Sissy Martin
Stylist: Afzaa Prasla
HMUA: Mariah Becerra
Models: Urvi Joshi, Bonnie McEnnis
In the 2001 film “The Princess Diaries,” Mia Thermopolis learns she is the princess of a European country through her dead father, tries to run from the responsibilities being a princess entails, and eventually triumphantly accepts the position, wearing a rain-soaked sweatshirt with a rousing speech on caring about others.
On top of the Disney life lessons, “The Princess Diaries” offers one of the most fondly remembered makeover scenes. Queen Clarisse Renaldi, played by a flawless Julie Andrews, entrusts Paolo to remake her granddaughter’s giant frizzy hair, bad posture and “bushman eyebrows.” For the final reveal of his work, Paolo dramatically covers Mia with two “before” photos, before finally uncovering the truth that Anne Hathaway is unfairly gorgeous and that Mia Thermopolis could believably be a princess now. Makeovers like this have permeated American cinema for years, from “My Fair Lady” to “Grease” to “The Devil Wears Prada.” These scenes are often similarly structured, typically consisting of a significant reason for the makeover, a montage of scenes showing our heroine’s change and growth (whether physical or mental) usually over a pop hit, then a reveal to the audience.
Many of these scenes can be categorized by the motivation behind the makeover. The Makeover for Makeover’s Sake, the Makeover for Purpose and the Makeover for Others each have their own unique motivating factor behind their inclusion in the film, both in our heroine’s journey and in filmmaking purposes.
The Makeover for Makeover’s Sake
Perhaps the purest and rarest type of makeover scene, this entails a woman merely deciding to change her look just because. One example of this can be found within 2004’s “13 Going on 30.” A 13-year-old Jenna suddenly wakes up as the 30-year-old version of herself, played by Jennifer Garner, in New York with an amazing magazine editor job and “incredible boobs,” as she says grabbing her own breasts in the elevator next to an actual 13-year-old girl. Before saving Poise magazine’s dying party with the power of “Thriller,” Jenna takes time to pick out a hideous neon dress, swipe on some frosty blue eyeshadow and pull out her hair clips, all set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”Reminiscent of the slumber party stereotype of girls braiding each other’s hair, the Makeover for Makeover’s Sake has fun at its core. Jenna, even in her horrifying choices for a party hosted by a fashion magazine, is relishing the chance to put on fabulous heels and pounds of hot pink lipstick, celebrating her newly discovered adult body and its “incredible boobs.” A Makeover for Makeover’s Sake offers the opportunity to revel in aspects of traditional femininity that are often written off as shallow when a woman does them for her own enjoyment. Putting on makeup, spending time on hair or forming the perfect outfit has often been equated to vanity. Women have been the butt of many a joke for their extensive morning routines or the long receipts brought back from a shopping spree.
But the Makeover for Makeover’s Sake combats the idea that enjoying makeup and clothing is automatically vain, celebrating a feminine form that enjoys getting dressed up because it feels good to look good. Self-care can absolutely involve blue eyeshadow and a tight neon dress.
The Makeover for a Purpose
As seen in “The Princess Diaries,” Mia undergoes dramatic changes in her journey to ruling Genovia. There is a specific purpose behind the makeover — Mia must look like a princess to believably be a princess, and princesses don’t wear glasses, obviously.
Another example of the Makeover for Purpose doesn’t involve a physical change to achieve a goal. In 2001’s “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods is fresh from SoCal and looking to win back her ex-boyfriend, Warner, through a Harvard Law education. She eventually realizes that Warner is never going to take her seriously, despite the fact that she too got into Harvard. Elle stomps off in her Playboy bunny costume to purchase an orange MacBook, abandoning her original plan of seducing Warner with looks and smarts, and immediately gets to work proving that she is just as capable of being a successful lawyer as Warner and his new fiancée, Vivian. What makes Elle’s mental Makeover for Purpose so satisfying by the end of the film is that she retains the traits for which her classmates and Warner so harshly vilify her. “Was she carrying books?” one of her classmates says as Elle walks by. Yes, but still wearing pink, still sporting highlights and still accompanied by her chihuahua. In the end, it’s her uncanny knowledge of hair care — the knowledge any “Cosmo girl” has — that wins Elle the murder trial, sets her former gym instructor free and guarantees her the success she deserves after cutting down every man who underestimates her. The final scene reveals Warren has no job offer or fiancée, while Elle is giving her valedictorian speech that she ends with a squeal.
Elle teaches girls that a traditionally feminine woman can be pretty, smart and kind all at once and still be taken seriously, as a lawyer no less. The fact that her makeover scene focuses on the stacks of books she lugs from place to place alongside her fabulous day to day life reminds us all that nearly anything can be accomplished with sheer will and a pink power suit. Elle stayed true to herself while changing, and that is what ultimately allowed her to succeed as well as she did.
The Makeover for Others
But the power of the mascara wand is not always used for good. Makeover scenes also reinforce the idea that women are always tied to their looks, something especially deadly to any woman’s career, social life or overall happiness if she (gasp) isn’t conventionally beautiful.
“She’s All That,” the 1999 remake of “My Fair Lady,” involves some of the more manipulative behavior that crops up far too often in these teenager-skewed flicks. Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character, Zack, bets his friend that he can make any girl in school into a prom queen. Enter Laney Boggs, whose apparent general demeanor is as unpleasant as the last name these writers gave her. She wears denim overalls, paints and almost causes Zack to back out of the bet because she’s so “scary.”
But power through he does. Laney, of course, has no idea she is the subject of a bet. She’s suspicious of Zack, but ultimately has her makeover supplied by Zack’s sister, who seemingly just cuts her hair and removes her glasses (because glasses are apparently always uncool). Laney walks downstairs before attending a cool kid party with Zack, while “Kiss Me” plays behind her. Zack looks like he wants to do just that, and we briefly forget that Zack all-around sucks at this point when we see the look on his face.
But sucks he does. By manipulating Laney into changing her whole appearance, Zack removes any power she has in their friendship and eventual romance. (Also: There’s a “13 Going on 30”-style dance scene? Someone eats pubic hair pizza? Usher is there? This movie is weird.) Laney eventually finds out about the bet, gets mad, then forgives him and they makeout. Zack gets the girl, stays the cool kid at school, and experiences little consequence outside of some self-reflection (maybe).
This manipulation is also found in other makeover movies. In 1995’s “Clueless,” Cher, played by Alicia Silverstone, begins her spree of makeovers by influencing two of her teachers into falling in love so she can improve her grades. She takes on the new girl at school to make her more appealing to the popular crowd (though she does genuinely like Tai, played by Brittany Murphy). Ultimately, however, Cher realizes how her selfish intentions caused her to be so “clueless” (ha) and she makes extreme changes in how she views the world and others.
But the removal of the makeover-ee’s agency in the whole process remains troubling, both in “She’s All That” and “Clueless.” Are the recipients of these makeovers actually cool with everything by the end of the film? Should we expect them to be?
Trying to pick apart these scenes often results in more questions than answers. Why must women be conventionally beautiful and traditionally feminine to succeed, or just receive basic human decency? Why do these scenes seem so prominent in the 1990s and early 2000s? Why must they always center around a white, thin Hollywood starlet, who is usually already extremely attractive? These examples were only a small selection of the makeover scenes that have emerged, and their subsequent questions only scratch the surface in terms of what can be discussed when one thinks about the iconic makeover scene.
But to many, a makeover symbolizes a new start, the beginning of a new life as a more glamorous or capable version of oneself. Our heroines experience this same thing — Mia and her shiny hair are ready to lead Genovia; Jenna has the poise to attend a party, literally as a new woman; Elle succeeds in becoming a kick-ass lawyer, and Laney is now accepted and admired by the most popular guy in school. By the end of each film, each heroine has a new confidence to go along with her new look. Despite the problematic undertones that plague almost every single makeover scene, there remains something magical in knowing that with the right makeup, clothes and the perfect song to soundtrack it all, anyone can be remade if they want. •