From Queer Eye to Pygmalion – movie makeover scenes are more than just skin deep

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Daniela Morosini
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Writer Daniela Morosini always considered makeover films a guilty pleasure, but is there more than meets the eye…?

Growing up, there were few films and TV shows that I was banned from watching - but there were some that came with an eye roll from my mother. On that list was Grease, a film that all my school friends loved and I had to watch on a grainy VHS in secret.

My mum’s problem was with Sandy’s makeover. I distinctly remember her referring to her style switch-up as ‘cheapening herself for a man’. My mum had a point, though – Danny doesn’t even look at her until she turns into a leather-clad, cigarette-smoking vixen, and only then do they drive off into the sunset together. Even as a child, I recognised that such a transformation to attract a man was worthless, but I was still intent on watching it happen.

The same can be said of my current obsession, Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye. In fact, the Fab Five would rather you didn’t call it a ‘makeover show’. Instead, they think of it as a ‘make-better’ show. Not a single one of the men who spends a week in their company emerges looking unrecognisable. Instead, they’re just more polished, walking a little taller and grinning a little wider. In the debut episode, Antoni, Tan and co are ensconced in Georgia, working with Tom, who starts off looking like an erstwhile Hell’s Angel meets golf enthusiast.

While sat in the barber’s chair, grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness asks him if he wants to keep his Santa-esque beard. Tom replies that he’s going for a ZZ Top look. Does Johnathan pick up the trimmer and shave it off anywhere? Hack into it with abandon? No, he replies, ‘Word!’, and shows Tom how to oil it to perfection. In fact, more of the show revolves around trying to rebuild the men’s self-esteem, and in turn, interpersonal relationships, by showing them how special they already are. 

Sure, a few of the guys get dates or rekindle old flames - but with women they were, or had already been involved with. “Our culture has shifted,” explains Dr Lefevre, behavioural psychologist at UCL. “We’re more individualistic and less focussed on romantic relationships as the be all and end all of our lives, and people want to look good for themselves.”

Even in the cheesiest of films, the romance feels like something of a subplot, an accessory to a greater character development. Take Clueless for example. As Cher throws herself into the makeover of her classmate Tai, friend Dionne tells her, “Cher loves a makeover! It gives her a sense of control in a world of chaos.” The resulting scenes are less about Tai capturing her beau’s heart, and more about her resulting bond with Cher, as they settle in for an at-home book club and workout session. And in The Devil Wears Prada, it’s about Andy refusing to let an impossible job beat her, and wordlessly telling Miranda Priestly that she’s not afraid anymore.

I’ve even enjoyed seeing people I follow on Instagram post photos of themselves a few years ago alongside a recent one, with a line about their ‘glow up’. There’s no disrespect or lack of pride or shame around how they used to look, and the difference is usually a new haircut and more painterly makeup skills. But the joy that comes with it, that celebration of feeling more comfortable in your skin, whether that’s by wearing no makeup or lots of makeup, or finally feeling yourself once you have pink hair or tattoos, is a powerful thing.

“Anyone can improve themselves, and if you’re at a low point, realising that is really appealing,” she says. “A show that improves someone’s nutritional habits is less likely to have these effects on viewers, because we don’t really have visual indicators. But an external makeover, especially if we see the stages happen, translates well because we see real, tangible improvement,” she explains.

It’s true - even if we aren’t the ones having a makeover, there’s something to be said for watching someone else live out that dream. Dr Lefevre added that there’s another reason Queer Eye might be so moving: “Watching a makeover scene can really lift the mood. It makes us feel like there is hope and there is possibility of change, which is tantalising to us psychologically. Especially if the person being made over is a peer of sorts - maybe not a big movie star, but someone we know in real life,” she says.

But despite living in an increasingly individualistic society, we still care about one another. That’s the real hook here - the bonds we form with these characters, seeing them in their day-to-day lives and seeing how downtrodden and dejected they feel. Our hearts go out to them, and then their journey to greater self-esteem becomes a case of essentially watching the underdog win gold at the Olympics. That’s why so many of these films resonated with me as a teen. Adolescence is a cocoon of sorts, and the awkwardness we feel in our bodies as they change and we adjust to becoming adults in the world can be almost unbearably uncomfortable. So, being able to believe that there’s transformation possible where we lose all our insecurities and become confident all at once is incredibly powerful.

And I’m happy to see the outdated equation of grooming and self-care with vanity and shallowness being broken down. After all, in the words of RuPaul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?”

Images: Netflix / Pinterest