The Makeover of the Media

Collage by Judy Goldstein, using images of actresses Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Sandra Bullock, courtesy of IMDB. 

Typically, when thinking about a classic, light-hearted, fun movie many minds go to popular 2000s movies like Miss Congeniality, Mean Girls, and The Princess Diaries. But what’s often overlooked and ignored are the embedded misogynistic and problematic ideas that are carelessly reinforced throughout.

Of course, some of these movies are iconic and enjoyed by many, but as a society we need to acknowledge and recognize the ideas they sometimes convey. These films center their plotlines around stereotypes, whether it be garnering people's respect after receiving a beauty makeover, like in Miss Congeniality, or using the frequent cliche of pitting women against one another, as in Mean Girls.

Miss Congeniality (2000), a movie about an undercover FBI agent undergoing a “beauty makeover” to join the Miss America Pageant can be viewed as having a positive message in the end. However, in the movie, the appearance of the main character, Gracie Hart (played by Sandra Bullock), is changed entirely to prepare her to take part in the pageant. Before the change, people in her workplace pushed her around for her more masculine energy, and her personality that was seen as “non-traditional.” Her “ready to fight” and assertive attitude was seen as too “out there.” It's frustrating to feel as though in order to gain respect from others, one must change their physical appearance. Despite this, the end of the movie does emphasize some positive messages including the importance of friendship, freedom, and standing up for what you know is right.

Similarly, the movie The Princess Diaries (2001) follows the beauty makeover archetype. Once again, this movie also ends with a positive message. It emphasizes friendship, trust, and feeling comfortable with one's physical and emotional identity. Prior to her “makeover,” the protagonist, Mia Thermopolis, (played by Anne Hathaway) was seen as the stereotypical “awkward teen,” constantly ignored and overlooked. But when Mia undergoes this forced physical “makeover,” including a wardrobe change, straightened hair, and contacts replacing glasses, the movie shows her life improving. After the makeover, the original love interest, one who had previously overlooked her, begins to reciprocate. The idea conveyed is, once again, in order to receive and earn the respect of others, we must completely alter the way we look to become more “attractive.” Therefore, the young audience picks up a message of the importance and power of adhering to conventional beauty standards in society. 

With plotlines like these, the usually younger audience is at risk for subconsciously adopting these messages and behaviors. In a final example, the movie Mean Girls (2004) has a suggestively light hearted plot entirely surrounding what the title conveys: “mean girls” in high school settings. However, this reinforcement of mean-spirited competition between young women risks shifting the original intent of the movie—the irrelevance of popularity—towards the idea of competing with other women. Throughout the story, harmful jokes and remarks about other students regarding sexuality, race, physical appearance, intelligence, and other personal factors are casually made. Oftentimes, situations in movies like these are credited to the fact that these movies were made in a different time, which is mostly true. The ongoing issue is the continued problematic tropes and plotlines still used in movies and shows today, as well as the potential subconscious influence and impact these themes have on youth in society. 

Overcoming such sexist and unequal cycles is necessary to the progress of representation in the media. Like other religions, Judaism had to overcome and continues to make progress on sexist bias from the past. It took around one century for women to have access to rabbinate institutions that were only open for men. By the slow ordination of women, the course of Judaism changed as we know it. It may seem surprising that women weren’t allowed to be ordained in Reform Judaism early on. Today, it's still debated over in many parts of Orthodox Judaism. However, it comes to show that by acknowledging the past, change can be correctly made. Holding the past accountable is how we learn to not repeat it. We must learn how to give examples and then discuss problems in our society for them to change. Simply telling stories without analyzing the message it conveys can sometimes be more detrimental than helpful. Today, various movies and shows still follow some of these tropes and plotlines. These older movies are still watched frequently as they are thought to be timeless classics, but the awkward and problematic comments have yet to be addressed. In newer movies and shows, there are still wrongful stereotypes and depictions of women. Some common themes include the enforcement of a Eurocentric beauty standard, the mother being a primary caregiver, emotion being viewed as weakness, and the list goes on.

To reiterate, this doesn’t mean that outdated movies can’t continue to be enjoyed by many. However, we live in a different time now. And yet, if there are still significant problems in the media depicting women with one identity, this cycle of spreading rather sexist stereotypes will continue, and ultimately this issue will prevail. It’s one thing to accept movies that already exist through a critical lens. It’s an entirely different problem to recline back and watch the singular depiction of people continue, rather than the array of identities everyone possesses.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Film, Comedy, Media
1 Comment
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I found this to be a well written and thoughtful essay with an important perspective. The subtle “takeaway” from many movies is often missed although they can easily have subliminal effects.

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How to cite this page

Nuri, Leila. "The Makeover of the Media." 24 April 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/makeover-media>.