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Metamorphosis and Metaphor: Makeovers

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

The most shallow of metamorphosis tropes is the one that resonated with me when I was younger: what I call the 'makeover' effect, the puberty metaphor. They're surface-level changes that conform to an ideal, revealing a lot about cultural identity but nothing about individual identity. I think of these metamorphoses as changes that are:

- seen as a positive change by the audience;

- fairly quick, effortless transformations; and

- superficial.

They're the dream, the ugly duckling transformation that we all pray for while we fight off spots, flat chests and puppy fat. They're the stories I was raised on, and that buried themselves deep in my psyche as the template for perfection.

So, why start here? Well, if you read last week's post, this is where I explain why I think it's important to identify the transformative models that shape us as individuals, assess whether or not they're positive, and discard the ones that aren't. The makeover trope is my personal nemesis.


The Archetypes

Let me get things going on a positive note: I strongly believe that things are getting better. Things were pretty dark for a while when I was a teenager, but (despite current political events) I think our culture is increasingly accepting of different identities, a trend which is reflected in personal transformations depicted in recent fiction and pop culture. I'll come back to this.

For the most part, little boys and girls where I grew up had different templates to follow, but there's a central pattern to both: underdog is transformed into a more acceptable, mainstream package and thereby finds love and acclaim.

For boys, the archetype is strength (not entirely superficial, I grant you, but stay with me), so they got the superheroes: normal boys who become stronger through transformation and win the respect of their communities. I'm thinking particularly of Spiderman as the epitome of this, because he's a geeky kid whose metamorphosis results in him getting the girl, but there are of course many more complex examples. I'm told by my husband that Spiderman is actually a fairly sophisticated, Stan Lee development in a medium that previously focussed on the static ideals of the chiselled jaw, straining muscles and outside knickers of Superman, Batman and the like. It's not what I consumed back then, so my contemporaneous insight is limited, but I digress.

For girls, the archetype is (of course) beauty, so we got the princess makeovers. I'm thinking particularly of Cinderella, a plain and hard-done-by girl, who is dressed up in some pretty clothes and so gets to go to the dance and marry a prince, while the various members of her horrible step family (in the better, Grimm-inspired versions) learn their lesson in bloody ways. Disney gives us this:

So, look, I'm not going to dwell on the difficulties of this messaging, because it's all fairly trite analysis at this point. These archetypes are historic, derived from fairytales and outdated ideals, but I'd like to trace back through one interesting thread that develops this metamorphic trope and eventually gives us Pretty Woman (1990).


Classical Origins

I imagine everyone has heard of Pretty Woman, starring the actress affectionately referred to by my dad as 'Julia Rabbit' (he's a fan). In the film, rich businessman Richard Gere buys himself a prostitute (Roberts) as a date for a number of fancy events. It culminates in Roberts' eventual refusal to take Gere's money, and they fall in love and live happily ever after. Superficially a rags-to-riches princess fantasy about the triumph of love over disparities in status, the story has never sat well with me. It retains a lot of the superficiality of the 80s, and for me it simply reinforces problematic ideals: men can buy love with money and power, and if a woman is pretty she should wait for a rich man to come and rescue her.

But Pretty Woman simply adopts this message from My Fair Lady (1964), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913). For me, My Fair Lady is a key progenitor of the before and after phenomenon, promising that every foul-mouthed street urchin has the potential to wear a tiara with pride. The basic story is that a London flower girl is picked up by an elocution teacher, who dresses her up and trains her speech so that she can pass in society as a 'lady'. In My Fair Lady, they fall in love and the implication of the final scene is that they live happily ever after. Classic makeover.

However, in Pygmalion the ending is very different. Shaw was apparently vociferous about the fact that the protagonists could not have a happily ever after, as that would undermine the point of the play, which was intended to lampoon the British class system. So, the moral that My Fair Lady communicates and Pretty Woman propagates is diametrically opposed to the moral that the original author intended.

Shaw's Pygmalion (amongst many other works) was itself inspired by the classical story of Pygmalion, which appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. There are many different versions of the myth, but Ovid's speaks particularly starkly to the idealism that is later developed in the 'makeover' trope. The story is this: Pygmalion is a sculptor who witnesses the Propoetides (a godless bunch of women) as they, "lose their good names by prostituting themselves in public".

Ovid describes their transformation into stone, saying, "as all sense of shame left them, the blood hardened in their cheeks, and it required only a slight alteration to transform them into stony flints". They're the stony shapes that appear in the background of the picture above (behind the goats).

Reacting to this, Pygmalion swears off women, deciding that they're all naturally flawed and debauched. Instead, he makes a sculpture of a beautiful woman and prays for her to be made real.

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome

"He made it lovelier than any woman born, and fell in love with his own creation. The statue had all the appearance of a real girl, so that it seemed to be alive, to want to move, did not modesty forbid. So cleverly did his art conceal its art. Pygmalion gazed in wonder, and in his heart there rose a passionate love for this image of a human form. Often he ran his hands over the work, feeling it to see whether it was flesh or ivory, and would not yet admit that ivory was all it was. He kissed the statue, and imagined that it kissed him back, spoke to it and embraced it, and thought he felt his fingers sink into the limbs he touched, so that he was afraid lest a bruise appear where he had pressed the flesh."

In a direct reversal of the Propoetides myth, the statue is turned from stone into a living woman, and she and Pygmalion live happily ever after. The moment is captured in the gorgeously evocative Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1890, above).

There's obviously pleasing symmetry in the fact that the impious Propoetides get turned from flesh to stone, and the pious Pygmalion has his desirable stone turned into flesh. You reap what you sow.

But there's another message I take from this (with allowances for classical sexism): humanity is imperfect, and the only way you can find perfection is to make it yourself. Perfection requires control. With a little cultural translation, I think this is actually quite positive. I acknowledge that the intended message was probably simply, 'Women are bloody awful, wouldn't it be nice if we could make our own and control them,' but I'd still argue that it's better to acknowledge that kind of perfection as unattainable than foist it on women in general as an expectation.

Which brings me back to the world post-Cinderella.


The Bloody 90s

Let's just take a moment to remember where we started this journey: the Ugly Duckling, a charming children's story, and a very positive one. When I was a child, that story told me, "It doesn't matter if you're different, and if you don't fit into other people's boxes, because you're perfect as you are. We're all individuals."

Then the 90s came along and said:

The makeover trope knocked around numerous cringeworthy teen films of the decade. They all followed the same plot: geeky, but interesting girl gets hot, then hot guy (who has nothing else to recommend him) finally takes an interest in her.

I don't think this is healthy. You can argue that these films are redemptive if you like, and that they teach us that everyone has hidden potential, but to me that's not what they say. To me, they say, "You can be clever and talented and kind, but if you're a girl then to be accepted by this society you damn well better be hot too." Le sigh.

Don't get me wrong: I watched all of these films, some of them repeatedly, because they were selling a story I wanted to buy. I still love makeovers, but I try to avoid the more damaging versions (I stick to the Revelations that I'll discuss in my next post), because I know that they brainwash me. It's like watching weight-loss programmes (a version of the makeover to my mind); If I let the diet fairies infect my mind then I know I'll be living on lettuce and diet coke for a week, then nothing but cake and cream the following week. The trope in its more destructive incarnations is seductive, and it breaks my brain.

But it wasn't all bad in the 90s. Variations on the trope gave us Clueless in 1995 (inspired by Jane Austen's Emma, and in which the madeover girl changes back to herself at the end, thanks very much) and Miss Congeniality in 2000 (which I recognise isn't the 90s, but it's so close that I've decided it counts).

Now, I have to confess that Miss Congeniality is one of my very favourite rainy day films. The premise is this: A serial killer targets the Miss United States beauty pageant, so an FBI agent has to go undercover as a contestant. Enter Sandra Bullock, a foul-mouthed, graceless, gun-toting and bad-mannered agent. Michael Caine is drafted in to turn her into a viable competitor, and voila le makeover. This is the moment when she is revealed:

I do think that the presentation of this makeover is subversive, and that the fall is a deliberate attempt to undermine the standard makeover message. To me, it says, "You are who you are, and you're going to fuck up frequently, so embrace it. Pretty up the outside if you like, but the best (and funniest) things about you are on the inside." I like to think this is why I love the film so much, but I suspect it's really because I have a fairly broad sense of humour, with a particular appreciation for physical comedy, and I just find it hilarious when people fall over. Bullock falls over A LOT in this film.

But Miss Congeniality was a late entry to this trope, and was already sending up its popularity. By this point, it was such a cliché that it was the central premise of 2001's Not Another Teen Movie (yes, that's Captain America as the Jock). Nevertheless, for a geeky girl who was a teenager in the 90s (back when being geeky was not cool), at its height it had been fairly irresistible.

But it's not all the fault of the 90s, terrible decade though it was. For me, the makeover is epitomised by Grease (1978), which I love because it was such an intrinsic part of my childhood (I watched it over and over with my sister), but which I also hate because the central message is so vile. Although wrapped in a veneer of insubordination, it's all about conformity (never really my thing). Despite my rebellious tendencies, I still found myself aspiring to that Olivia Newton-John ideal, because it was the first model I had and it was propagated by the transformative depictions of the 90s.

I was a brown-haired, messy child who loved food and ate too much of it. Not much has changed since then. I never have, and was never going to, fit into that blonde, skinny mold. Now in my 30s, I know I'll never attain that ideal, half with relief but (and this is the important bit) still half with despair. That metamorphic model is so ingrained in my consciousness that I'll secretly always feel like a bit of a failure for not achieving a similar transformation. I wonder whether my outlook on that would be different if I'd had some less superficial fictional templates to follow in my youth.

This is why diverse representation in fiction is so important, and I didn't even have it bad. I might be brown-haired and chubby, but I'm a white, middle class, English girl. If I cared enough, I could lose weight and dye my hair (but I like cake too much and going blonde makes my cheeks look really, really pink). But the point is, I can only imagine how such destructive ideals will have impacted on others. I just don't think homogeneity of this kind does any of us any favours.


What Now?

Thankfully, I haven't seen much of this sort of thing since the 90s.

I suspect this is because my Netflix and Amazon algorithms know I won't like it. Also, the makeover gimmick tends to be confined to YA fiction because of the parallels that it draws with puberty, and I only consume YA fantasy. Fantasy has all sorts of other interesting transformations to explore, so any aspects of the makeover effect that carry over to it tend to be less superficial as they are wrapped up in power and control by way of magic, vampires, werewolves or other supernatural changes (which I'm going to talk about over the coming weeks).

However, I hope the trope is less common simply because our focus is now less superficial. in the recent depictions of metamorphosis that I have seen, there has definitely been a shift. Writers seem more interested in the concept of identifying who you are as an individual and then externalising it, rather than turning everyone into the same cookie-cutter ideal.

Going back to Disney for a moment, I'd use Frozen to demonstrate that change. For the three people in the world who haven't been exposed to the film either by choice or under compulsion imposed by their children, the relevant plot is this: A princess called Elsa is born with the magical power to create snow and ice, which she keeps secret from all but her parents (who give her the awful advice: "conceal, don't feel"). When her parents die, she has to open the palace and throw a coronation party, which is joyfully anticipated by her sister Anna, who doesn't understand why Elsa will never hang out with her anymore. At the party, Elsa accidentally reveals her powers and, unable to control them, banishes herself to a mountain top where she sings Let It Go to camera in an annoyingly contrived fashion (I'm sorry, but it is) and changes into a sparkly dress:

That's a pretty big jump from Cinderella. Yes, Elsa has a physical transformation, but it's of her own making, and simply a device to signify her acceptance and revelation of her true identity (the 'Revelation' metamorphosis, which I'll discuss in depth next time). The physical change isn't the point of the story. And yes, she's still a pretty, blonde, white girl, but the kids love Elsa because she's powerful (which is why Anna isn't so popular, despite being the real heroine).

If this is illustrative of wider societal change, then I would argue that it shows a growing acceptance of our differences, visible and otherwise, and a welcome shift from the superficial to something more meaningful.

This is the great thing about the internet: we're all connected and we're all seen. Although things are still far from perfect, I do think our perception of 'normal' is slowly changing as our experiential bubbles grow and our horizons stretch globally.

Next time: Revelations


I graduated from St Hilda's College, Oxford, with an MA in Literae Humaniores (Classics) in 2006, and subsequently converted to law. I write novels about vampires and lost civilisations, with a sprinkling of Latin and Ancient Greek.

The Metamorphoses quotation is from Mary M Innes's 1955 translation (Penguin Classics edition).

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