‘Glowing up’ on screen: Are coming-of-age makeover scenes always problematic?

By Maria Atter

Grease, Clueless, Mean Girls, The Princess Diaries, The Breakfast Club. What do all these films have in common, besides being coming-of-age classics? They all feature a makeover scene, where a (straight, white) girl transforms into a more conventionally attractive version of herself, mostly to gain social acceptance or romantic attention.

Think of Mia in ‘The Princess Diaries‘, whose grandmother hires a whole team to change Mia’s looks. In ‘Clueless‘, Cher takes new girl Tai under her wing, giving her a makeover so that she can fit in with her friends, while in ‘Grease’, Sandy remodels herself into the greaser girl of Danny’s dreams. Makeover scenes are a common trope in teen movies – is it time to retire them for good?

Why are movie makeovers problematic?

The coming-of-age genre contains a lot of makeover moments, which may partly be due to its overlap with the chick flick genre. In these scenes, young girls are most often the subjects. These characters undergo a physical transformation, supposedly from an ‘ugly duckling’ to a ‘beautiful swan’. In each movie, the ‘beautiful swan’ look tends to follow the same template of conventional Western beauty standards. Mostly this involves having silky hair, putting on mascara and eyeshadow, and ditching jeans for a skirt. The character generally becomes more feminine in appearance and easily falls into mainstream beauty ideals, embodying racist, Eurocentric ideas of what ‘beautiful’ looks like. In these movies, the popular girl is the pretty girl, and the pretty girl is thin, white, cis, and able-bodied.

Film makeovers almost always focus on changing a character’s physical appearance, through makeup, haircuts or a change of clothes. As a result, these scenes function just like propaganda, telling young girls that all they need to solve their problems is straight hair and some makeup. The vast majority of movie characters who undergo a makeover are afterwards able to reap the benefits of ‘pretty privilege’ – they are given more respect than their previous selves were ever afforded, and usually a larger choice of friends and romantic partners. This change in opportunity is especially enticing for the protagonist, who often begins the movie as a social outcast.

Autonomy is also a key issue here – as Mina Le points out, in many cases, the desire for a makeover doesn’t come from the person meant to be having it. Often these makeovers are imposed upon characters who have no real wish to change how they look. Sometimes the makeover is a side project (Clueless) or a distraction for another character (The Breakfast Club), other times it’s a literal requirement to hang out with a group of people (Mean Girls). Even when the character personally chooses to have a makeover, it is often for the purpose of gaining male attention (Grease).

The glow up: Real life makeover culture

Given all of this, why are so many of us so enthralled by the ‘movie makeover’? There’s a clear audience invested in watching them – a quick Google search will provide you with dozens of articles ranking the most iconic on-screen makeovers of the last few decades. In part, this is likely to be down to our cultural fixation with glowing up, and the resulting pressure to fit into the beauty standard. This has only intensified in recent years, largely as a result of social media. On YouTube, you can find tons of videos on ‘how to glow-up in 24 hours‘, while on Instagram people post pictures of how they look now next to how they looked 10 years ago. In these ways, everyday people emulate the makeovers we’ve watched in movies for years – whether that be by filming their own physical transformation or showing their own ‘before’ and ‘after’. We are clearly invested in watching dramatic developments in style and fashion taste.

Do makeovers have to be problematic? ‘Euphoria’ and ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

In recent years, television has adapted this problematic makeover trope to appeal to a modern audience. TV shows have become particularly adept at using style transformations to develop and explore their characters’, using clothes and make-up to indicate a change in personal feelings or social standing.

The Queen’s Gambit‘ (2020) is one TV show that does a brilliant job at using clothes to illustrate character development. The miniseries follows the story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s journey to becoming the star of the chess world. We watch Beth move from childhood in an orphanage to adolescence in the suburbs, seeing her develop into an increasingly successful chess player. Her progress is accompanied by a clever style evolution that maps the changes to Beth’s personal and social circumstances. YouTuber Mina Le made a brilliant video analysis of the fashion in The Queen’s Gambit, where she discussed how Beth’s style developed based on the wider social context, as well as changes to Beth’s finances, mental health and location. We meet Beth as a young girl, wearing the pinafore dress uniform of her orphanage, but her attire gradually evolves once she gets adopted and starts making her own money. Beth starts to wear circle skirts and full dresses, later moving on to sleeker looks and mod outfits. Her fashion choices are linked to her own tastes and experiences, rather than just the trends of the time. A particularly interesting point was Le’s opinion that the showrunners had deliberately dressed Beth in outfits that feature a geometrically square pattern to emphasise her obsession with chess. Throughout the series, Beth is frequently seen wearing plaid, check, and grid patterns, with some of her outfits, quite literally resembling a chessboard. Fashion is used in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ not only to highlight the changes in Beth’s life, but also the consistent – namely, her commitment to playing chess.

Euphoria‘ is another TV show that uses fashion and makeup as a tool of storytelling, to great effect. The show was so successful in this regard that Euphoria-inspired looks were trending for months after its initial release. While clothes, hair, and makeup were used as a means for the main characters to showcase their personalities and development, this was particularly the case for the character of Kat (played by Barbie Ferreira). At the beginning of ‘Euphoria‘, Kat is quiet, meek, and avoids attracting attention, mostly dressing in muted tones and prints, with little to no makeup. As the series progresses, Kat grows visibly more confident and comfortable with her body, which is then reflected in her striking outfits and bold makeup. By the end of the first season, a typical Kat look involves smoky eyeshadow and red lipstick, something PVC/leather/mesh, and usually a choker or a body harness to top it all off. Kat’s overall change in appearance is a consequence of her journey towards self-acceptance and personal empowerment. It was particularly cathartic to watch Kat, a plus-size girl, experiment with clothes and how they make her feel.

The inner glow-up

Kat’s transformation is gradual and takes several episodes to fully unfold, an obvious contrast to the classic makeover montage sequence which usually spans about ten seconds. While sudden, ‘shocking’ transformations are more commonly found on screen, Kat’s makeover is much more realistic in the way it steadily develops. Her outward transformation mirrors the internal change she is experiencing.

The relationship between the ‘physical glow up’ and the ‘internal glow up’ is an interesting one that has been explored before – most notably in the cult classic, ‘Clueless‘. In ‘Clueless‘, new-girl Tai is given the ‘makeover montage’ treatment, but as Hanna Flint argues, Cher undergoes a parallel internal makeover of “her soul.” This inner makeover sees Cher transform into someone who donates her belongings to charity, helps her dad with work, and is friendlier to classmates outside of her circle. Cher’s internal makeover in ‘Clueless‘ could easily be seen as an example of the lifestyle and mindset glow-ups that can be found all over social media. We watch as Tai’s physical makeover spurs her to become more superficial and mean, while Cher’s internal makeover snaps her out of this behaviour. The direct contrast between Cher’s intentional internal glow-up and Tai’s slightly-coerced physical glow-up highlights how important autonomy is when it comes to makeovers, and why transforming your appearance won’t solve all your problems.

Euphoria‘, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Clueless’ are all good examples of style transformations that avoid the misogynistic pitfalls of the more ‘classic’ makeover sequence. The classic makeover montage highlights the pressure for young people to fit into current beauty standards, but these examples show how this trope can be reimagined. They all use fashion as a key component of storytelling, and in doing so they set a higher standard for any future filmmakers hoping to use the makeover sequence in their own work. Makeovers can be fun to watch, but it’s time to get rid of the ‘ugly duckling transformation’ trope that props these narratives up.