Ken and Barbie – The Makeover Scene as Means to Overcome “Obstacles” – Hayley Milne

In his writing on romantic comedy around 1934-1949, Stanley Cavell describes the ways in which the main couple get together, “overcoming individual and social obstacles to find their happiness.”[1] Either through the man “overcoming obstacles posed by an older man”[2] or by the woman transforming herself in some way – what he calls “death and restoration”. Whilst this essay is outdated – it talks about a period of cinema 80 years ago and from a heteronormative perspective, when reading it I thought of the ways in which women in cinema still undergo this “transformation” in order to appeal to male characters and what I think is one of the most sexist tropes of cinema still seen in mainstream cinema today – the makeover scene. I grew up watching teen comedy such as mean girls and clueless and became to expect some sort of makeover scene in which the female lead removes her glasses and is instantly a changed woman, attractive to her male counterparts. What Cavell calls an “obstacle” is actually the ways in which the undesirable woman must alter herself to fit the male gaze. This, however, is not a feminist criticism of the makeover scene but an analysis of how Cavell’s theory can still be seen today.


The example that first came to mind was that of the makeover scene in The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, USA, 2001), in which Mia (Anne Hathaway) has her appearance and attitudes changed to become more “princess-like”. Her bushy brows and frizzy hair are plucked, brushed, smoothed and reduced so she can appear more “lady-like”. Once she is physically altered, she “looks like a princess” and is ready to be treated as such, the attitudes of those around her change and she gets the man she had crushed on. This is a quite literal example of Carvell’s theory – Mia is seen as more ladylike after her transformation – “may be disguised as a boy”, and her “death and restoration” seen in her transformation resolve all issues of the film. Whilst Cravell’s work does not mention the makeover as an example of death and restoration there is something to be said for the ways in which women’s characters in romcom cinema are still reduced to their appearance in order to solve the main conflict.





Cavell, Stanley. “Introduction: Words for a Conversation.” Essay. In Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, 1–42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.




The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, USA, 2001)

[1] Cavell, Stanley. “Introduction: Words for a Conversation.” Essay. In Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, 1–42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.


[2] Cavell, Words for a Conversation, p. 1.


  1. Great minds think alike… I absolutely agree! I believe the ‘obstacles’ women must overcome to achieve self-realization and social integration can be internal, and I imagine these can challenge misogynistic beliefs; for example, the transformation could be becoming aware of one’s emotional independence. It is interesting to see how often the potentially progressive transformation trope is replaced by the makeover sequence. It would be even more interesting to attempt to find a makeover sequence that within its context still manages to subvert sexism – I wonder if such cases exist!

  2. Another example that came to mind was the ending scene in Grease (Kleiser, USA 1978). They both undergo such a transition to fit each other. Travolta becomes more of a “jock”- he tries out for atheletic teams and tries to be overall more “respectable”. Newton-John also undergoes a change in which she becomes more of a “greaser”- clad in tight leather, blown out hair, and red lipstick. I’ve always had qualms with this makeover scene as it feels as Travolta’s character easily reverts back, whereas Newton-John’s character continues as Travolta’s ideal.

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