A skewed perception of looks in movies

Photo by Casey Gomez

From “The Breakfast Club” and “Grease” to “She’s All That,” moviegoers have always loved a good makeover scene. Audiences go wild whenever the character who has been marked “different” changes her appearance to fit in with her peers.

One of the best examples of this trope from my own childhood is the makeover scene from the “The Princess Diaries.” For those unfamiliar, “The Princess Diaries” is a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews that was released in 2001. 

It tells the story of Mia Thermopolis, a 15-year-old girl who discovers that her distant and recently deceased father was the crown prince of a fictional kingdom called Genovia. Her grandmother, Queen Clarisse, breaks this news to her, thus catapulting Mia into the transition from awkward teen to poised princess.

I recently revisited the movie and realized that it sends mixed messages to its audience of primarily young girls. In some ways, the story demonstrates that it is important to be yourself and that it is good to be different. The filmmakers even enlist the help of the Backstreet Boys by using the song “What Makes You Different (Makes You Beautiful)” to drive this message home.

On the other hand, the movie also reinforces standards of feminine beauty that women are expected to uphold. This is evident in the makeover scene, which can definitely be interpreted as harmful to a young audience member’s self-image.

In the scene, Clarisse recruits esteemed beautician Paolo to make her granddaughter look more like a “princess” should. When Paolo first notices Mia, he shrieks. She has big, frizzy hair, her eyebrows are thick and untouched by tweezers and her awkward facial expressions demonstrate her reluctance to undergo any sort of transformation.

After dishing Mia some backhanded compliments and declaring that, despite her appearance, he will make her beautiful, Paolo finally prepares to reveal his work to the Queen. His two trendy assistants hold up “before” photos that obscure Mia’s face. When they pull the photos back, they reveal a girl who now has shiny, straight hair and a face full of makeup. Mia smiles, anxious for approval.

It is a well-known statistic that a girl’s self-esteem plummets around age 12. Watching a scene like Mia’s transformation provides some insight as to why. Movie scenes like this, regardless of intent, brand those “before” and “after” images very clearly in a viewer’s mind.

Thus, the movie reaffirms in the minds of girls a strict code of what is and is not beautiful. For example, I was once bickering with my sister when she said: “Well, you look like the girl from the Princess Diaries, but from before she got the makeover.” 

She was unable to recall Mia’s name and had limited memory of the plot, but it is important that she did remember the pivotal makeover scene. Based on her understanding, to equate someone else’s appearance with the “before” pictures in that scene would be a great insult.

This is the trap that many impressionable children fall into. They learn that characters like Mia only have value post-makeover; but, to believe that is to miss some of the more meaningful messages in the movie.

Mia has a lot going for her before she learns she is royalty. She has friends who care about her and cool hobbies like rock climbing; but so often throughout the movie, Mia mentions feeling in visible. At one point a classmate accidentally sits on her because he fails to notice her. Mia is also terrified of public speaking and tells her grandmother, “My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I’m good at it.”

While Mia is struggling to fit in with her classmates, friends and high society, the queen’s head security reminds her, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

In the end, Mia shows up to a glamorous ball where she is expected to give a speech about her decision to accept the crown. She is soaking wet from the rain and wears only a raggedy sweatshirt and jeans. For the first time, it is not her appearance that matters, but what she finally has to say. She finds her voice and realizes it was something she had in her all along, rather than something she needed perfect hair and makeup to express.

I am glad that I was able to revisit this movie with a new perspective. It is not perfect, but its message is more nuanced than many people may remember. I would encourage everybody to reflect on the media they grew up with, whether it is a book, a movie or the music that was popular at the time. It is important to reexamine the media that shaped us, not only to better understand our own identities, but also to ensure that the stories we create and share with young children in the future do not continue to reinforce questionable standards that negatively impact their self-worth.