For me, the makeover montage is the guilty pleasure within the already guilty pleasure of the rom-com, the perfect thing to watch when feeling under the weather in bed and far from glamorous.
The transformation from ugly duckling to sexy swan is seen as far back as fairy tales like Cinderella and remains a common plot line, sometimes accompanied by a desire to change a woman’s behaviour to conform to societal expectations as seen in Pygmalion and The Taming of the Shrew.
This is all deeply problematic when we look at it from our modern, feminist perspective and yet we still enjoy it. Conventions like ‘monobrow removal’ and ‘girl takes off her glasses and she’s suddenly hot’ leave a lot to be desired but seem to reoccur time and time again with little real complaint from their audience.
In its modern form the makeover montage is seen in iconic movies including Grease, Clueless, Mean Girls, and The Devil Wears Prada. The messages of the montages in these movies often seem to be more positive or empowering and less troubling, but there is still the underlying assumption that changing your appearance will help you attract men and, by consequence, success.
Some poor girl is often shown to be assaulted by hairspray and tight clothing in a bid to improve herself and her social standing within high school cliques, the career ladder, or the romantic playing field. As a severely myopic woman I’m most concerned by the way glasses are broken without a second thought.
Can the girl see? Why not insert a section where she puts on some contact lenses so we can all rest easy? It is certainly perplexing that we love watching something that disempowers women and crudely reduces them to their physical appearance. So why do we enjoy it, even when the flaws they remove are ones we have, and can something valuable be taken from the makeover montage?
On a purely superficial note, these montages are fun. Fast paced eyebrow plucking and throwing clothes around coupled with a breezy pop song can never go too wrong. Transitions are made more humorous because no one ever seriously believed that Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality) or Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) are even mildly unattractive. It simply makes for good entertainment watching the frenzied attempts to get a girl ready.
The physical comedy is also pretty good because painful hair removal does have its funny moments. We can relate to pain of a bikini wax and eyebrow plucker. That’s the crux of it- it is all somewhat relatable to our own lives, and to the ritual of getting ready. We recreate our own version of the makeover montage each week before a night out. We cram ourselves into one room sharing gossip, hair straighteners and a bottle of £4 Sauvignon Blanc purchased hastily from Tesco at 9:45pm.
It’s our Cinderella-esque transformation from being hunched over in the library to feeling like a queen We had similar ceremonies when we were younger – albeit without the Tesco booze run. At sleepovers we painted each other’s nails badly using Miss Sporty glitter nail varnish and put on homemade yoghurt face masks to try and sort out our burgeoning acne. Makeover montages have been and still are a real part of our life.
Beneath the lip gloss, DIY crop tops and haircuts, the makeover montage represents something much more important. Rarely do we see a girl transform herself – the makeover is a social act, a bastion of female friendship. It’s women coming together to talk and trying to empower and help each other. Granted that empowerment shouldn’t come solely from our physical appearance, or at the expense of others’ self esteem, but a flick of mascara can definitely help you feel a little better about yourself.
Perhaps what helps the most is that the recipient of the makeover is surrounded by friends who in their own, sometimes misguided way, are attempting to help. Friendships are built during the montages which are much more significant than a new look.
In film, a makeover montage frequently undercuts its own values before the end credits. For instance, it is Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless who needs an internal makeover because of her harsh judgements and prejudice, while Brittany Murphy’s Tai is eventually accepted for who she is. The execution of these montages can definitely feel disempowering but they often come from characters’ good, albeit warped, intentions. We have to dig through the superficiality and layers of makeup in order to find what really matters- the friendships and bonds created through getting dressed up.
Even if the end goal is pleasing a male protagonist, the makeover itself is a distinctly boy-free zone. Now more than ever, it is increasingly important for women to support each other and show kindness and empathy.
Helping a sad friend pick out some shoes is just one step along a path that leads to solidarity and love amongst women and for that the makeover montage is at its core a good thing.