Rebirth, Makeover, and Patriarchy: The Cavell Circle

Romantic comedies are often embellished with a makeover sequence, in which the female protagonist is transformed from an ugly duckling into a swan. In The Princess Diaries (Garry Marshall, 2001, USA), the teenage Mia Thomson has to undergo such transformation of the physical appearance to become suitable for the role of the princess of Genovia.

The film is not an example of a comedy of remarriage, since its main characters struggle to get through high school, yet as a romantic comedy embodies several ideas Cavell uses to define the classical comedy of remarriage. Taking place amid a clash of ‘the normal’ and royal wealth, finding its comic resolution in social integration as Mia finds her popularity, her high school enemies’ attempts to ruin her happiness are failed and they are humiliated, and finally, with Mia confessing love to her reciprocating crush when the film ends with a kiss, the film epitomizes numerous tropes of the romantic comedy genre. Mia’s makeover scene taps into another major romantic comedy trope outlined by Cavell: the theme of death and rebirth. [1] Her old quirky, nerdy, awkward self must be buried to enable the dawn of her new, improved, more appropriate self.  Mia’s rebirth, the makeover, and inner transformation in The Princess Diaries expose the sensitive nature of Cavell’s  conceptualization of the comedy of remarriage as being partially defined by the struggle for “the equality of consciousness between a woman and a man;” [2] although the struggle and the final social integration are supposed to challenge and undermine misogynistic views, they can easily land on a plateau of societal stagnation.


Within the film, the makeover attempts to bring Mia closer to self-fulfillment and to being a powerful independent woman, yet further confines her into the suffocating model of patriarchy. She is made to look attractive according to patriarchal conventions; her eyebrows are plucked, her nails painted, her face covered with makeup, and most prominently, her hair is straightened to fit the beauty ideal of white heteronormativity. The taming of her hair, previously described as “wild as a wolf,” symbolizes not her transition into independence, but rather her transition into ‘appropriate’ and subdued womanhood as designed by the patriarchal society. The scene ends up not empowering women but implying social integration and self-fulfillment are achieved by conforming to misogynistic standards.



Mia’s Makeover Sequence:



[1] Stanley Cavell, “Introduction: Words for a Conversation” and “Pros and Cons,” Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 8.

[2] Stanley Cavell, “Introduction: Words for a Conversation” and “Pros and Cons,” Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 17.

Leave a Reply