What is the Glow Up Trope?
An “unattractive” woman gets a makeover and suddenly she is beautiful, acceptable, and worthy.
The goal is to make the woman conform to societal standards of beauty otherwise she’s not worthy of getting the man (heteronormative), fitting in with the cool girls (often classist), or succeeding professionally.
The desired look is usually a Eurocentric one, and this trope typically applies to white women.
The process: Frizzy, unkempt hair is straightened and styled, glasses are replaced by contacts, makeup is applied, outfits are upgraded (or downsized).
Who has agency? Not the character being transformed.
It can be men as in Pretty Woman, The Breakfast Club, and She’s All That. Rather than seeing the actual transformation, we see the man’s reaction to it. Then we see it as if through his eyes as the camera pans up her body, exemplifying the male gaze.
It can also be friends who try to get a random character to conform to their norm as in Mean Girls and Clueless.
Or it can be family as in The Princess Diaries or coworkers and bosses as in Miss Congeniality and The Devil Wears Prada.
These transformations can be harmful because they reinforce objectification of women, that women rely on external validation, and that women’s worth is in their appearance.
It doesn’t matter how smart, professionally successful, or unique you are: if you don’t meet a certain beauty standard, those around you won’t recognize your worth.
They’re problematic so why do we enjoy them?
Makeovers reveal what we already know – that the actresses in these roles are actually glamorous and beautiful and now those in the movie will know too.
We think the women’s life will be easier now that they’re “traditionally attractive.” We think they’ll find more success, acceptance, and get the guy.
And honestly, we’ve probably all wanted our own glow up at some point.
Usually the women revert, at least partially, to their original appearances but move forward in a new embodiment that combines quirky and attractive.
When you see a glow up scene in a movie or show, ask yourself:
Who is initiating the transformation?
What is their motive?
Does the woman want the change?
What is she giving up?
Does she gain agency at the end?