The Problem With the Makeover Trope

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Brigita Przybylski

** Warning: Spoilers ahead! **

A woman takes off her glasses, lets down her hair and… BOOM! Magically she’s attractive. Whenever a wardrobe montage or makeover scene comes on screen, I roll my eyes. Not only is the makeover trope in movies dated and offensive, it leads audiences to believe that only when a woman looks conventionally attractive is she worthy or valuable. 

These beauty transformation scenes are exhibited through the male gaze as well as societal standards. They’re in all of the teen movies we watched growing up, which caused us young girls to internalize the indirect messaging, and hate how we look when we don’t fit into the mold of society’s Eurocentric beauty standards. Not to mention, movie makeovers seem to imply that the woman receiving the makeover has no control over the situation, resulting in her appearance being a reflection of others’ beauty ideals rather than her own identity. 

However, not all transformations are bad. Although movies are still being made with the makeover trope, there are some movies that feature what I like to call an “anti-makeover,” or a makeover in opposition of the conventional idea of beauty. These transformations are done by the main characters themselves in the form of expression, as a way of finding their identity. The main characters are in control of making the decisions. The opinions and thoughts of everyone else are dismissed and the main character finds happiness in feeling more like themselves, regardless of how they are perceived. Here are four makeover and four anti-makeover movies to watch and my breakdown of the transformation scenes in each. 


The Princess Diaries (2001) | Directed by Garry Marshall

After Mia (Anne Hathaway) finds out she is a princess after meeting her estranged grandmother (Julie Andrews), the Queen of Genovia, her grandmother hires stylists to make her more presentable. When the stylist Paola (Larry Miller) sees Mia for the first time, he screams in horror. One of Paola’s first changes is removing Mia’s glasses from her face and snapping them in half. In a voiceover during the makeover, Paola says “you will be beautiful,” implying that Mia isn’t beautiful already. Her hair is straightened, eyebrows are plucked, makeup is applied, and her shoes are switched out for heels. This movie stresses an intense before and after makeover, where before images are held up in front of Mia’s face before the big reveal. During this reveal, the stylists say that Mia is now a princess and her grandmother replies with, “better, much better.” Mia looks into a mirror and gasps at the results, presumably now feeling beautiful, even though her new look was completely out of her control.

Miss Congeniality (2000) | Directed by Donald Petrie

This action/romance film follows an FBI agent Gracie (Sandra Bullock) who goes undercover in the Miss United States pageant in an attempt to prevent a terrorist attack. Beauty pageants are already controversial for their objectification of women and focus on physical appearance in accordance with conventional beauty standards. Normally, Gracie dresses in baggy clothes, a ponytail, and glasses, all of which are seen as unacceptable for her mission. In order to go undercover, Victor (Michael Cane) and his large glam crew give Gracie a makeover to get her pageant ready, or rather, more aligned with what society deems as attractive. Victor calls for a full body hair removal for Gracie and oversees every tiny detail about her supposedly flawed appearance. Furthermore, Victor controls what Gracie eats, physically grabbing a sandwich from her hands and swapping it with a stick of celery, a display that pokes fun at eating disorders. While Gracie’s male coworker is waiting for the makeover reveal, he states “Unbelievable! I mean where the hell is she? What could possibly be taking this long?” Some might find this quote to be misogynistic, alluding to the fact that men want women to look a certain way but shame them for the time it takes to meet these expectations. Post-transformation, Gracie wears her hair down without glasses. She wears makeup, a short tight strapless dress, and heels. Her coworker gawks at her and comments on her look by asking, “Is that you?” Gracie is visibly unhappy about her makeover and even falls while walking in heels.

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) | Directed by Raja Gosnell

Velma (Linda Cardellini) is known for her glasses and chunky orange turtleneck. But after Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) gives Velma a makeover in order to impress a man, the qualities that are iconic to Velma are suddenly stripped away. After Velma’s makeover, she sports a low-cut and tight latex jumpsuit, heels, heavy makeup, and longer straight hair. When her love interest Patrick (Seth Green) isn’t giving her the attention she hoped for, Velma zips up her jumpsuit higher, feeling uncomfortable and exposed. As a result of the lack of attention, Velma changes back into her normal appearance. Although this may seem like an empowering choice, it’s clear that the only reason she changes back is to once again appeal to her love interest. 

Do Revenge (2022) | Directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

This teen comedy from 2022 features a classic 2000’s-esque makeover scene. Do Revenge even attempts to comment on this trope when Eleanor (Maya Hawke) says, “it feels so problematic.” But Drea (Camila Mendes) responds with “it is, but it’s fun.” Everything about Eleanor is changed: a new wardrobe, accessories, styled hair, and makeup. Her signature baggy shirt and shorts combo is switched out for pastel skirts and feminine tops. Drea picks out everything for her, without giving Eleanor any say in her appearance. While shopping, Eleanor picks out a piece of clothing from the rack and says, “I actually really like this,” but Drea retorts with “absolutely not.” Even personality wise, Eleanor takes on new characteristics that completely change who she is as a person, in order to be more liked by her peers. Eleanor’s crush Gabbi (Talia Ryder) takes note of how much Eleanor has changed, commenting on Eleanor’s “whole new look.” Gabbi caringly says, “I think it’s hot… as long as you did it for you and not them,” which we know isn’t true.  


Nappily Ever After (2018) | Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour

This rom-com explores the conflict between Eurocentric beauty standards and natural beauty as it applies to Black women. Violet (Sanaa Lathan) is controlled by her need to be perfect in every aspect of her life, especially in regards to physical appearance, something her mom taught her from a young age. At the start of the movie, Violet retells moments from her childhood where she was forced to straighten her hair in order to be considered well-groomed, perfect, and beautiful, specifically in comparison to her white peers. When she realizes her perfectionism is holding her back from living her life authentically, she decides to shave her head. In this scene, Violet expresses a range of emotions including sadness, anger, happiness, freedom, and doubt. Nappily Ever After is split into six sections – straightened, weave, blonde, bald, new growth, and nappily– where the stages of hair transformation parallel to Violet’s character transformation. Initially, Violet loses her confidence, mostly because of how she is perceived differently due to her hair. Violet almost makes the same mistake as her mother when she criticizes a young girl’s natural hair, who she later sees again and corrects her behavior by saying, “don’t ever let someone’s negative opinion of you become your reality.” Ultimately, Violet accepts her natural hair and recognizes her beauty, concluding that society is the one that needs to change and hopes she can be a part of that change “one head at a time.” 

Gone Girl (2014) | Directed by David Fincher

In this thriller, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) needs a change in appearance after faking her death and framing her husband Nick (Ben Affleck). Amy cuts her own hair and dyes it darker while her voiceover states, “Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. The cool girl. Men always use that, don’t they, as their defining compliment.” Amy is trying to go against beauty standards and what is considered attractive by men. She is removing the labels her husband once gave to her. Additionally, Amy comments on her objectification by expressing how she felt she was seen as a sexual object in her relationship. She then heads to the store where she buys a pair of glasses, plain clothes, and junk food. Amy does the opposite of what every movie makeover preaches, in order to empower herself from her dying marriage. 

One of Us Is Lying (2021) | Directed by Jennifer Morrison

Although this pick is a TV show and not a movie, Addy’s (Annalisa Cochrane) transformation and character development is one of my favorites. At the start of this series, Addy is a popular high school student in a seemingly perfect relationship with her boyfriend Jake (Barrett Carnahan). Addy’s mom (Ali Liebert) puts a lot of value into her physical appearance and stresses the need for validation from men, causing Addy to have a twisted view of herself and her worth. When Addy is first introduced, she is staring at herself in a mirror and sending photos of her outfit to her friend for approval. Her mom walks into her bedroom and promptly says, “Is that what you’re wearing?” to which Addy asks what’s wrong with it and her mom replies, “you just gotta work with what you got.” Her boyfriend then arrives and she holds her breath waiting for his reaction to her outfit, revealing to us that she dresses for others instead of herself. When Addy’s life starts falling apart after she loses her social status due to breaking up with her controlling boyfriend and being accused of murder, she chops off her long blonde hair. She finally feels like herself after becoming free from the expectations and opinions of her mom, controlling ex-boyfriend, and classmates. Her haircut, goes against what is conventionally considered attractive and symbolizes how she doesn’t need to be perfect in the eyes of others. The literal and metaphorical weight of her hair is removed, giving her a new sense of freedom. Addy is ok being a loner if that means she’s herself. 

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) | Directed by Jamie Babbit

This teen comedy contains strong themes of identity and unapologetically being who you are. Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a cheerleader and high school student who is seemingly unaware that she’s gay. When Megan’s parents suspect she’s a lesbian, they send her to True Directions, a two-month conversion therapy camp. There is a traditional transformation scene in this movie upon Megan’s arrival. However, the wrongness of this trope is strongly implied through the exaggeration of gender stereotypes. The women at the camp are forced to wear all pink and the men wear all blue. In addition to enforcing gender stereotypes, these uniforms strip the campers of their individuality. Additionally, they are taught strict gender roles. The women practice vacuuming, cleaning dishes, and changing a baby’s diaper, while the men practice fixing a car and playing football. Megan befriends her fellow camper Graham (Clea DuVall) who shows Megan that she should be her authentic self. After leaving the camp and being kicked out of her house for failing the conversion therapy, Megan turns to other failed campers and says, “I thought you could teach me how to be a lesbian,” to which they reply that there isn’t one way to be a lesbian and to be who you are. We see Megan change back into her cheerleader uniform and at the conclusion, she continues to discover more about her identity.


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