'Pretty in Pink' / 'She's All That' / 'The Breakfast Club' / 'Miss Congeniality'
It's no secret that American women are bombarded daily with mainstream beauty standards -- a multitude of industries literally depend on it. But nowhere is that message more sneakily fed than in that old movie trope: the conventional makeover.
Probably the most famously upsetting example occurred in 1985's The Breakfast Club, when spoiled princess Claire (Molly Ringwald) does what is supposed to be her good deed for the day by de-weirding the eccentric but adorable Allison (Ally Sheedy). Claire transforms Allison's goth bag-lady look with a frilly pink top she has magicked out of nowhere, removes Allison's black eyeliner, puts pink shimmer all over her face and sticks a bow on her head, thereby effectively erasing Allison's entire persona.
"Why are you being so nice to me?" Allison asks, letting the viewer know that, at the core of every unconventional woman, is a "normal," more aesthetically pleasing one just dying to get out. It's not true, of course: weird kids aren't weird because they don't know how to be pretty -- weird kids dress weird specifically because they don't fit in and have zero desire to.
John Hughes should have known better. Outside of the makeover scene, The Breakfast Club is a movie that examines, very pointedly, the inherent value of individuality. It's a film that tells us that nobody has a perfect life; that humans are all complex creatures; and that high school, with all of its stupid pressures to fit in, is basically a waking nightmare. All of the film's good work is undone when Allison is no longer allowed to be herself -- in the end, the movie is telling us, pretty is always better.
Predictably, after the transformation she never asked for, Allison is immediately desired by the first jock who sees her, and we're supposed to think this is a good thing:
In a 2015 interview with Crave, Ally Sheedy said of the scene:
"Yeah, at first in the script Molly was actually adding a lot of makeup onto this plain faced Allison but then I wanted that black [eyeliner]. So then John [Hughes, writer/ director] said it was okay to have it be taking the black stuff off the eyes. I think the idea was that you reveal this person who’s been behind a mask, but every time I look at it, I wish we hadn’t done that."
It wasn't the only time John Hughes gave a female character a totally unnecessary movie makeover either. Just one year later, in Pretty in Pink, he felt the need to transform the best-dressed woman in the whole film. Viewers spend the entire movie falling in love with Iona (Annie Potts) because of her kooky exuberance, dry sense of humor and consistently amazing wardrobe, only to watch her get turned into a Miami Vice extra by the end because she's found the right man.
Miscast in the role, Potts looks almost the same age as the rest of the supposedly teenage cast. If the script didn't reference it repeatedly, we'd have absolutely no idea that Iona is supposed to be in her mid-late thirties. Post-makeover, the reason for all of the age references becomes abundantly clear: Hughes wants us to know that when older women express themselves through unusual clothing, it is simply a product of acting out. The second they find a relationship, all of that creativity will evaporate because they finally have something worthwhile to put their energy towards -- a man.
The '90s weren't immune to the high-school movie makeover either. In hindsight, it's not terribly surprising that She's All That has one, given the fact that the movie's plot revolves primarily around humiliating young women. The film starts with Zack (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) declaring to a friend that all girls are interchangeable. (Great start, She's All That!) To prove it, he promises to transform an unwitting nerd into a prom queen within a matter of weeks. The rest of the movie is basically about Zack's ex-girlfriend being publicly humiliated, or the unwitting nerd being manipulated and/or abused (there's a totally glossed over almost-sexual-assault at the end, on top of everything else).
All this aside, what gives She's All That an extra level of unwatchable-ness is that Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) is quite obviously drop-dead gorgeous pre-makeover, so it makes zero sense when Zack's jaw drops at the sight of the made-over Laney, just because she's taken off her glasses and shortened her hair.
Watch on as newfound beauty magically grants Laney 20/20 vision and the ability to see without the glasses she's needed this entire time:
At least 2000's Miss Congeniality had the decency to come up with a flimsy plot device (beyond simply We'll Make You Look Nice Now) to facilitate the makeover of Gracie (Sandra Bullock). That's about the only positive though.
The message throughout the comedy is relentless: tough women are perpetually unattractive; tomboys are inherently gross; pageants are so incredibly important people might be driven to revenge-bomb them; and only once they adhere to strict beauty regimens can women truly find wholeness and happiness.
The concept that a woman of Gracie's age, living in America, could manage to reach adulthood without ever being pressured into trying out the world of make up and dresses before, is an insult to teenage girls everywhere -- as is the idea that a woman who doesn't "even own a brush" can instantly walk this far, this flawlessly in heels. (Both Miss Congeniality and She's All That are careful to include one post-makeover heel-related stumble. You know. For realism.)
The inherently flawed thing about the conventional makeover in movies is that it sends very clear, potentially damaging messages to audiences. The first is that, if you are a woman, being yourself is much less important than being attractive to men. The second is the idea that if you look a certain way, if you buy the right clothes and preen enough, all of your problems will go away (*cough* Pretty Woman *cough*). And third: women should both crave and welcome the male gaze. (We'd talk about the rampant cis- and hetero-normativity involved in all of this, but there simply isn't time.)
Thankfully, post-Millennium movie makeovers -- like those in The Devil Wears Prada and Easy A -- have done a better job of making on-screen transformations about something other than the inner desire to conform. Let's hope the erasure of characters' strong identities in favor of a pretty face stays trapped in the last Century.