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The problem with Hollywood’s makeover scenes

Allison Lee

BY Allison Lee

22nd May 2023 Film & TV

The problem with Hollywood’s makeover scenes

From The Princess Diaries to Miss Congeniality, we have all fallen at the feet of Hollywood's infamous makeover scenes, but it's time to critically analyse the problems of such scenes under a magnifying glass

It’s a scene imprinted in the minds of every young girl who fell at the feet of The Princess Diaries: Amelia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi gets shoved into a chair facing a vanity with an array of beauty tools laid out. With a brush of hair, removal of glasses, swipe of eyeshadow, pluck of brows, and full-blown manicure and pedicure, voila—you’ve got yourself a brand-new princess!

Of course, the Princess of Genovia was not the first in cinematic history to go through the Cinderella-esque ordeal. Julia Roberts’ character Vivian transformed herself through a shopping spree in Pretty Woman, Brittany Murphy’s Tai in Clueless upgraded to a more confident version of herself, and Sandra Bullock’s Gracie Hart traded in her FBI badge for a Miss Congeniality sash. These are just the starting bullet points in a long list of Hollywood makeover scenes that seem to have a strong tug on viewers’ heartstrings.

The problem with Hollywood’s makeover scenes - scene from Pretty WomanJulia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990). Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

However, it’s time to put these scenes under a critical magnifying glass and ask: “Is potential harm concealed beneath those rosy cheeks and sparkling dresses?” The messages conveyed through makeover scenes can be problematic and lead to distorted societal norms on beauty and self-worth. Here are four potential harms that could slip through the cracks of makeover scenes.

Unrealistic beauty standards

To tackle this issue, we have to divide makeover scenes into pre- and post-makeover and examine the problem with each. There is a consistent way pre-makeover characters are presented: glasses, braces, wild hair and no makeup. Such scenes insinuate that anyone who looks like the pre-makeover character is in dire need of powder and brushes to look more presentable. When audiences begin to identify themselves with characters pre-makeover and watch the scene unfold, they might begin to question whether they are also in need of a makeover, slowly chipping away at their confidence. 

While there is no doubt that post-makeover characters exude beauty, they are also presenting an idealised version of how women should look. From perfectly styled hair and airbrush-like makeup to racks of designer clothing, these transformations promote a narrow definition of beauty that can have a negative impact, specifically on more impressionable audiences who might feel pressured to conform to the grave notion of beauty.

"From perfectly styled hair to designer clothing, these transformations promote a narrow definition of beauty"

By showcasing only one specific image of attractiveness, these scenes reinforce a one-size-fits-all concept of beauty that does not exist in real life and can inadvertently contribute toward body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.

Superficiality over substance

A frequently-seen trope lurking in the shadows of makeover scenes is the idea that one can skyrocket to success and acceptance simply by altering their appearance. Not only can this be costly for some young women, but they also overshadow the significance of inner qualities such as intelligence and kindness.

Prioritising external changes to attain validation will inadvertently reinforce the idea that superficial changes are required for personal growth, leading young women to forgo or deprioritise developing their inner qualities.

Perpetuating gender stereotypes

A lesser-discussed issue with makeover scenes is how it adheres to the traditional gender stereotype that women are obsessed with looks. The idea that a woman must conform to societal expectations of femininity and beauty to be desirable and successful is an outdated one that feminists and equality movements are trying to move past, but makeover scenes undermine this progress.

"The idea that a woman must conform to societal expectations of femininity and beauty to be successful is an outdated one"

An underlying message transmitted through these transformation scenes is that a woman’s worth increases only when she looks more beautiful. This is a message to be wary of because it goes beyond impacting the minds of impressionable young women—it also poses harm to women at large.

Neglecting individuality and diversity

The problem with Hollywood’s makeover scenes - scene from Miss CongenialitySandra Bullock plays a detective turned beauty pageant contestant in Miss Congeniality (2000). Credit: Warner Bros.

While the film industry has been doing due diligence and spotlighting actors and actresses from different backgrounds, makeover scenes still fall short of celebrating diversity. Downsides of makeover scenes aside, rarely are there any scenes promoting the makeover of characters of different ethnicities and body types.

"Rarely are there any scenes promoting the makeover of characters of different ethnicities and body types"

This, yet again, reaffirms the idea that there is a predetermined standard of beauty that remains unattainable to many. Such lack of representation can easily marginalise individuals who don’t fit within the narrow confines of the makeover ideal, further perpetuating feelings of exclusion and inadequacy.

While it might bring some joy and exhilaration to witness the magical transformation that comes in makeover scenes, it is our duty as viewers to dive deeper beyond the screen to evaluate the harm of these scenes and advocate for more inclusive and empowering narratives that celebrate individuality, authenticity and self-acceptance.

Banner credit: The Princess Diaries (2001), Walt Disney Pictures

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