Monday, March 19, 2012

The Transcendence of the Makeover

Makeovers are such a staple of movies targeted toward teen girls that it’s almost beside the point for me to call out specific examples. (Oh, fine, since you asked for my favorite movie makeover: Fran in Strictly Ballroom. Remember, though, I was a theater geek in high school so I sort of don’t have a choice here.) They’ve gotten sort of a bad rap over time—yeah, they send the message that we’re not really lovable until we fit a certain standard, and they set up the idea that the record-scratch moment has to happen or we’re doing it wrong. And it’s obvious but let’s say it anyway: How many actresses who aren’t conventionally good-looking to begin with are cast in these roles?

But Hollywood keeps on making makeover movies, and girls keep on loving them—and frankly, I keep on loving them too. As Rachel Rabbit White puts it in her roundup of the best makeover moments, “While there’s plenty to tease apart there culturally, it’s hard not to love a good geek to chic makeover montage, especially the rebellious or ill-advised.” (Word up, Prozac Nation!) Part of the fascination is projecting ourselves onto the character: What would we look like with enough attention from a small battery of dedicated team players (with a sassy gay best friend to boot!)? The chance to make ourselves over unapologetically is part of the enduring lore of prom movies too; for adult women, weddings supplant prom as our chance to “play
pretty,” judgment-free.

But our fascination goes deeper than just our own wishes to be made over—after all, we project ourselves onto movie characters all the time, so the makeover is hardly unique in that sense. At first look it seems like we’re collectively into the idea of transformation: changing into a form we’re not. The more I think about it, though, what we’re after is transcendence—going beyond, rising above, triumphing. That’s what is so satisfying about a good makeover movie: not seeing our heroine change into something new, but seeing so
mething revealed through change.

It’s rare that I ever wanted to look like anyone other than myself. Even in times of my life when I was unhappy with my appearance, the changes I wanted to make were tweaks to what I already had, not an essential change in form. In my fantasy-dream-makeover world, I look like myself, except plus or minus a number of things that are too boring to list here (#6: remove the colorless mole half an inch from my left nostril that nobody else has commented on, ever). And while I’m not trying to overestimate the resiliency of the self-esteem of the American woman, in talking with a good number of women about beauty, only rarely have I heard a wish to actually look like someone else. Most of us, most of the time, don’t wish to transform; we wish to transcend.

We wish to transcend the features that we think have held us back. We wish to become better than our troublesome thighs or inconvenient nose; we wish to triumph over what those features have personally meant to us. We wish to outdo ourselves, with what we already have—and if we want to outdo others, chances are we want to outdo them with what we have instead of what we don’t (isn’t that more satisfying?). In some ways it’s the basis of body image and self-esteem work: The entire idea is to go beyond, not to change essential composition. And despite the attention paid to women who do actually transform, much of the time that attention is done with a clucking tone, the undercurrent being: Honey, why don’t you learn to work with what you’ve got? There’s much to be critiqued about that form of judgment, to be sure, but at its heart is a well-meaning but harshly misdirected desire for our Heidi Montags to be more like our Jennifer Anistons. Isn’t the moral of most makeover tales that the makeover only helped its owner articulate what was already there? (Isn’t that why we have the term makeunder?) Transformation is linked to transcendence, yes, but the compositional change required by a transformation seems to me to be a route to the greater goal of transcendence. The focus on the tangible aspects of makeovers—the eyeshadows and push-up bras and blending of lipsticks—is understandable, given that transformation is an easier concept to look in the eye than transcendence. But our fascination with makeovers can’t be about the tools alone. They wouldn’t have such a hold over us if it were just a
bout the outer shift.

It’s fitting that the person who got me thinking about transcendence is the author of several books about what one might call transformation at first glance. When I interviewed my friend Carolyn Turgeon last year, amid a thoroughly appropriate amount of mermaid talk, I also asked her about makeovers. Her second book, Godmother, gave the fairy godmother’s account of the most famous makeover of all time, Cinderella; her third, Mermaid, delved into the oft-literal pain that transformation can bring, with our protagonist (whom you may know under another author as “The Little Mermaid”) bearing the sensation of knives slicing her legs with every step. You can revisit the interview here, but this part in particular stuck with me:

There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. … I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete.

This idea—wanting to be whole again—stayed with me as I read her new novel, The Next Full Moon. It’s a young adult book, carrying on the YA-lit tradition of outer transformation echoing the intense bodily transformation of the early teen years, but the hook here isn’t a makeover per se. Nearing her 13th birthday, our heroine, Ava, begins to sprout feathers, which of course are terrifically mortifying, and the book follows Ava from the feather-freakout stage to, well, transcendence, in every sense of the word. (I don’t want to give away the plot, but Carolyn’s turn of phrase from our interview “You fell from the stars and you want to return there” was a hint of foreshadowing.)

Just as teen makeover movies abound, YA makeover books aren’t exactly new. But what The Next Full Moon does is give us the essence of the makeover without the actual making over. The Grimm Brothers (and their many sources) gave us a handy template with Cinderella: Girl gets makeover, girl gets boy, sisters get eyes pecked out by birds. It was so handy that while plenty of feminist scholars have deconstructed Cinderella, we still keep going over the same old ground without asking for a new makeover tale. Turgeon takes the end goal of transcendence and creates a storyline around it in a way her fairy-tale precedessors never did. Just as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked took the underlying themes of imperialism and cultural autonomy already present in Wizard of Oz, The Next Full Moon takes what’s inherent in plenty of fairy tales—supernatural means of becoming our best selves—and distills it to its essence.

The story is original, but it stems from another set of fairy tales: Swan maiden myths have shown up in various forms throughout world folklore (they’ve earned their own spot on the Aarne-Thompson folk tale classification system), and in fact there’s another contemporary retelling that got some attention last year. The story that became Black Swan was originally set in the theater world but Darren Aronofsky specifically decided to place it in ballet, and I don’t think it’s just the good girl/bad girl theme that made Swan Lake a fitting choice of framework. In the film, Nina isn’t just encouraged to find her internal “black swan”; she’s encouraged to go above and beyond her mere technical talent to truly inhabit the role—to make it, and herself, whole. Both Black Swan and The Next Full Moon marry swan maiden myths to a chrysalis tale, each of our heroines emerging from transcendent experiences with a knowledge they didn’t possess before. They’re both changed by their experiences (as any good makeover should do, natch), but in each case they’re only discovering what is already there. I’d hardly recommend Black Swan as a metaphoric tale for teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood (I think the film works best as a horror flick, actually), but the ease with which The Next Full Moon presents the essence of the makeover without the breathless pandering of shoddier makeover moments makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more inventive YA retellings of transcendence. (The answer, of course, is that Miss Turgeon is a visionary, but that’s beside the point.)

Straight-up makeover tales aren’t going anywhere, nor do they need to. I just want us to keep our eye on the prize here: The goal is not to change, the goal is to reveal. And makeovers don’t actually make us transcend, of course. That’s part of why we both love makeovers and fear them—what if we look in the mirror and we look different but are still the same? A makeover doesn’t make us complete. But given that most of us aren’t secretly swan maidens, fairies, mermaids, or even werewolves, the makeover is the closest thing we’ve got. It’s an immediate, albeit brief, stand-in for the longer, harder work of transcendence, which often requires such unglamorous tasks like study, or meditation, or spiritual communion, or plain old age. And when you’re 13, everything feels so urgent—you’re in a hurry to grow up and transcend this damned acne-ridden, retainer-bound form. Makeovers are a fine shortcut. But we need to remember what they're a shortcut to.


  1. Great analysis. I like your distinction between transformation and transcendence and its application to this genre. An insightful way to look at it.

    People in my situation (trangendered) often consider analogous issues and transformation is often mentioned as the goal. I disagree with that: I don't think we (and certainly not I) need to transform into something different. I'm content with my corporeal self. What I wish for is a more enlightened society that would accept me for who I am. I explain to people frequently that I don't have a physical problem (when they ask about surgery); I have a social problem (in not being allowed to express myself in the female gender).

    Good post. Thought-provoking.

    1. Interesting! I hadn't thought of this in application to transgender concerns, but of course it is. It seems as though the goal here might be to have society transcend so that you could be considered as an individual without transformation. That's certainly what I see on your blog--you accepting yourself isn't the issue, it's the ways we've constructed gender.

  2. "The goal is not to change, the goal is to reveal."

    I really like this phrase. I've made myself over at least a couple of times. Sometimes people mention something about me changing, when in fact, I've really just made the outside reflect more accurately what is inside.

    It also reminds me of the struggle I had in my own adolescence, when I could see certain (strong) features in my face, hair, and coloring that I wanted to bring out (using makeup and fashion choices); but I couldn't get anyone to support me in that. The adults in my life who controlled my appearance (parents, hairdressers, etc.) could only see me a certain way. So for the longest time, I wore hairstyles that didn't really suit my bone structure and colors that washed me out. Gaining control over my hairstyle was a life-changing experience! And I'm not talking about some wild punk style or anything. I just wanted to grow it out and comb it back, LOL.

    Interestingly enough, I still (at middle age) have trouble getting hairstylists to follow my instructions about how I want my hair cut.

    1. I'm liking this idea of the makeover as an expression of the inner self. In my case the only official "makeover" I've had was an expression of one sliver of myself that usually goes unexpressed, so the thought of having this--a struggle to just self-define who you felt you were in a more generalized sense--seems difficult but eventually liberating. (And grrr on the hairstylists who think they know better. They may be the experts on hair, but you are the expert on you.)

  3. Hm, this post has me thinking of the number of transformations I've had in my life-time, roughly a new one each decade, but transcendence IS something difficult to picture and we are such a visual culture. In transcendence, I might look like myself as an infant--all potential and little definition.

    1. You know, I hadn't considered what transcendence would actually look like. I'm going to think on that. It's easier and more communicative to rely on the visual cues of the makeover, which is why we do it, but if I'm arguing for the end goal I'd better pony up!

  4. I admit that I've been hankering for a makeover lately, and yes, it has as much to do with hopefully spurring myself to greater heights as it does with lookin' prettier. Have you ever consciously used a makeover to change yourself? Have you ever tried a makeover that flopped?

    Interrobangs Anonymous linked to this a couple of weeks ago. It left me pondering my wardrobe. Alright, so I was already pondering my wardrobe:

    1. Ooh, thanks for the link! Clearly we both need lab coats...

      You know, the only real-life makeover I've done (I mean, one I tried to carry into my day-to-day life, as opposed to the bombshell makeover I got last year, which lasted 12 hours) was a flop. When I met my terrible ex I suddenly became very concerned about looking cool/hip, as he was a hipster and my world was so not that--I appreciated the indie values but my own career trajectory was pretty corporate at the time, and that was reflected in my wardrobe. So I went from Express/Banana Republic-type gear to trying to pull off pigtails and ironic T-shirts. It was a period of experimentation, I guess. In photos I look terrible--probably because I wasn't terribly relaxed, either physically or mentally. I think at the time I believed I wanted to transcend my "old" self, but truly I think I did sort of want to change form. I wasn't terribly happy, and my then-boyfriend spurred that sense within me and wasn't supportive of me finding myself with what I already had. I had to reach outward because I didn't think much was within. (Sad story! But you asked!)

    2. I guess there's a reason you call him My Terrible Ex. Sounds like a good chapter title, though...

      Ah, the bombshell makeover! Short-lived, but definitely educational.

  5. Y'know, whether we're using the push-up bras or meditation classes in an effort to achieve transcendence it seems like maybe we're just looking for a shift in perspective? Of seeing ourselves as we are and appreciating that and wishing others could do the same. Maybe we don't have to transform or work so damn hard to transcend (or return to wholeness), just recognize the "divinity" that's already there...??

    I don't know, but I won't lie - I really enjoy new lip gloss and a sassy gay friend sometimes.

    PS - Mermaids are evahwhere! This post was almost indistinguishable from mine... ; ) But now you got me thinking that maybe hankering for the merladies lately is signaling a desire for transformation that I just hadn't realized yet... hhhmm.... I'm tapping into my Jungian mermaid archetype! Time for some self-reflection!

    1. "A shift in perspective"--I like that. Perhaps that's just as often the goal as something like transcendence (which is a pretty lofty goal, I admit...). Certainly a "good" makeover would put the rest of one's beauty work in perspective, and beauty work is often a mirror for other things we do...

      Also, JUNGIAN MERMAID ARCHETYPE is glorious.