The Bad Message Sent by Hollywood’s Tired “Nerd Makeover” Obsession
We all know the scene.
There’s typically a shot of a long staircase before a foot steps into frame clad in an impressive high-heeled shoe. The music begins—it’s a classic 90s tune, something by Sixpence None The Richer or Third Eye Blind (remember those guys?). The camera travels up and up to finally reveal the newly made-over nerd.
Gone is the ugly duckling with the coke-bottle glasses that obscure half her face and the unflattering wardrobe—but of course, there has to be a moment of floundering. She trips down the stairs, or accidentally sticks her date with the pin in his corsage—just to remind us that while we may be able to transform the exterior, she’s still the same socially awkward individual we were introduced to at the beginning.
We’re all familiar with the classic makeover scene wherein the nerdy, bookish girl is transformed into her beautiful, more popular counterpart (by the application of more makeup and preppier clothes). From The Breakfast Club to Miss Congeniality, the makeover scene is a trope that has made its way into the plot of many a rom-com over the last several decades.
It’s interesting to note that women who are “nerdy” are also typically depicted as being unkempt or otherwise visually unappealing. The idea of the makeover scene is to bestow upon them the Hollywood ideal of beauty, to make them more socially palatable in order to reach a broader audience. Granted, many of these actors are already what’s known as “Hollywood homely”, wherein their conventional good looks are merely muted with some unfortunate hair styling or an intense set of orthodontia. If there’s a conclusion to be reached via the makeover, it’s that the nerd isn’t deserving of success, popularity or love until she conforms to a standard.
Take Clueless, for example. When we first meet Tai, Cher takes one look at her and declares that she has a new project to take on. “She is so adorably clueless. We have got to adopt her,” she tells her best friend Dionne. In the world of knee-highs and tiny backpacks, Tai’s oversized plaid shirt and cherry-red hair stick out like a sore thumb. She’s into her art and shows her sketches off to stoner-kid Travis in the lunch line in an adorable meet-cute, but everything that makes her awesomely unique gets washed down the drain along with that red hair dye.
As well-meaning as Cher might have been in the beginning, she was so focused with helping Tai and other friends improve their lives that she didn’t stop to consider what made them happy. It takes the course of the movie for Cher to come around to the fact that she may have created a monster with her makeover—and Tai inevitably goes back to her old self, albeit with a few outward adjustments to her personal style.
She’s All That’s Laney Boggs isn’t so much a nerd as she is a marcher to her own beat—but that’s enough to get her labeled by the ruling elite at her high school. She’s an artist, which in this film’s universe is an uncool thing to be. When she realizes she’s being pursued by BMOC Zack, she doesn’t realize that she’s going to be the victim of a particularly cruel bet. You’re rooting for Laney all the way, but mostly because the popular kids are so mean as to be considered practically inhuman. Given everything she experiences over the course of the storyline, her acceptance of Zack at the end is made somewhat palatable by the knowledge that the two of them will likely break up once she graduates and heads off to art school.
The other consolation is the fact that for the most part, Laney stays pretty true to herself. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she’s not going to put up with being manipulated, but she also has a sensitive side. It’s a little ironic that the one truly complex character in this film is also the one who everyone else attempts to mold into a different image.
In The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis’ makeover is dictated by her sudden launch into the spotlight after she’s crowned Princess of Genovia. While it’s tough to argue against a movie with such a brilliant cast (like the ever-perfect Julie Andrews), looking back on a film like this left me with a mixture of emotions. Mia is definitely on the lower end of the social hierarchy, frequently bullied by the popular crowd or teased for her appearance.
After her makeover gets rid of her frizzy hair and swaps out her glasses for contacts, she wows everyone—including the hot jock she’s always been crushing on. Granted, this was a guy who wouldn’t notice her before, which creates the obvious set up of the other guy right under her nose who liked her all along, before she plucked a single eyebrow.
The other problematic half of the makeover trope is that it perpetuates the frustrating message that a drastic change in physical appearance is what will make the person of your dreams finally notice you. It tilts the scale too far in the direction of looks and doesn’t really focus on what makes nerds awesome: their personality. While the image of the nerd on screen has evolved over the years—from academic expositor to mad scientist to technical wizard—there’s no denying that they’re some of the greatest people out there.
In reality, we know that nerds don’t all look the same, and being a nerd is not as rigidly defined as it used to be. You can be a nerd about anything that you feel very passionate about: pop culture, science, technology. What constitutes a nerd isn’t just limited to pocket protectors and taped glasses, and it definitely shouldn’t have to involve changing or conforming to a certain standard. Nerds are cool all on their own—literally, truly cool. This might be wishful thinking, but I’m hoping that one of these days Hollywood will finally get the memo that the makeover ship has sailed.
Carly Lane is a writer based in New York City who specializes in obscure pop culture references and miscellaneous geekery. Her work has been featured onHelloGiggles, Obvi We’re The Ladies, Femsplain and more. You can find her on Twitter at @equivocarly.
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