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Revealing the ‘Ugly’ in the ‘Ugly Duckling’ Trope

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at St. Andrews chapter.

When you think of chick flicks, I’m sure you think of glamorous Hollywood makeovers. But have you ever noticed how the ugly duckling transformation is propagated in your favorite chick flicks? To be honest, this phenomenon is so normalized by the media that I only came to realize its prevalence very recently.

The ugly duckling transformation also known as the “glow up,” is commonly seen in movies and on social media platforms, like Instagram and TikTok. On social media, it is particularly evident in ‘before and after’ photos for celebrities or fitness gurus. Similarly, the big reveal is usually encapsulated in movies by a two to three minute makeover montage wherein the main character undergoes a full 180-degree transformation of their physical appearance, transitioning from an ‘ugly duckling’ to a ‘beautiful swan.’

movie gif from princess diaries, transformation
Walt Disney Pictures / Giphy

Unfortunately, a majority of the makeover montages in chick flicks from the ‘90s to the ‘00s propagated these ugly duckling transformations, and subconsciously contributed to their normalization. In most movies of this niche, female leads change their looks with the help of friendships, makeup, a new haircut, and a stylish wardrobe. Problematically, the makeover acts as a major plot device, as seen in Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, The Breakfast Club, Miss Congeniality, and dozens more.

However, contrary to popular belief, the concept of “glow-ups” is nothing new. For example, Cinderella is arguably one of the most popular and oldest examples of “glowing up”, where Cinderella undergoes a full transformation and lands herself a prince. Another famous fairytale that emphasizes a physical glow-up is the Ugly Duckling itself, which tells the story of an ugly duckling who gets bullied for his appearance, but later finds acceptance when he grows up to become a beautiful swan.

Cinderella transformation gif
Disney / Giphy

The first Hollywood movie to feature such a transformation was Now, Voyager (1942). Betty Davies plays the character of Charlotte Vale, an unconfident glasses-wearing spinster with bushy eyebrows who, after going into rehab, transforms into a glamorous woman. Rooted in the need for women to gain male validation, these makeover montages are used as instruments by the media to emphasize a rigorous standard of beauty and associate this with social, professional, or romantic success. For example, in Grease (1978), Sandy Olsson changes her appearance for Danny Zuko, and it is even romanticized with a music number. 

Moreover, in Pretty Woman (1990), Vivian Ward’s makeover is considered a life-changing moment, transforming her into a classy woman to make her look more appealing to the male character. The movie also shows how Vivian was poorly treated by people prior to her transformation. Movies such as these purport that their message is to ‘never judge a book by its cover,’ because every woman is able to become beautiful if she undergoes a complete makeover. However, the real message should of course be to treat people respectfully despite their physical appearance, financial background, or social status, and not try to change them.

Interestingly, a lot of these movies suggest that embracing femininity is the only means of become a woman; however, most of the time, the female lead isn’t the one who wants the makeover and is usually forced to undergo it by other characters. Miss Congeniality (2000), follows the story of Gracie Hart, a tomboy FBI agent who undergoes a full makeover to enter a beauty pageant as an undercover agent. Prior to the makeover, Gracie was treated poorly by her male colleagues who only started treating her respectfully after she put on a dress.

miss congeniality giphy
Warner Bros. Pictures / Giphy

Needless to say, some makeover montages in movies like, Mean Girls (2004) and John Tucker Must Die (2006), serve as integral parts to their revenge plots. In Mean Girls, Cady Heron transforms into a ‘plastic’ as a means of seeking revenge, only to find herself sucked into their world, and later regaining her sense of self. Moreover, Clueless (1995) paints a negative portrait of these transformations, and in movies like Legally Blonde (2001) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006), the protagonists undergo transformations to achieve success in their careers, not to win a man or stick to the status quo.  

get in loser mean girls
Paramount Pictures
Overall, it is clear that the media fuels toxic obsessions with constantly improving physical appearances in order to achieve validation, and as such, the makeover montage or “ugly duckling transformation” is essentially glamorized propaganda packaged into a two-to-three minute scene. The protagonist in these movies is portrayed as a relatable woman who gets bullied because of her unconventional appearance (the opposite of Hollywood glamor), and viewers watch her transform into a ‘beautiful swan,’ and be comforted by the knowledge that she can now lead a happy life in the future.

It’s also important to note that most of the time, what is portrayed as ‘ugly’ in these movies isn’t ugly at all, and the protagonist in question has several other traits that make her worthy of achievement and distinction in her career; and yet, viewers are led to believe that a full makeover is the absolute key to her success. Whether it is the not-so-subtle suggestion that wearing contact lenses as opposed to glasses, straightening one’s hair, plucking one’s eyebrows, or improving one’s style as means of improving their appearance, the implication is that these are things that anyone can easily do, and in fact should do. Makeover montages in films uphold the socially constructed idea of beauty, and are portrayed as one-way tickets to success. Personally, I love watching chick-flicks (and a lot of them are my all-time favorites), but instead of obsessing over physical development, I hope we can begin to embrace characters’ individuality and personal development instead.

Syna Singh

St. Andrews '24

Syna Singh is a third year at St Andrews majoring in Financial Economics and Management. She is originally from India but has lived her whole life in sunny Dubai. Photography, traveling, tennis and blogging are some of her interests. In addition to that, she hates being unproductive but also loves binge-watching true crime series, kdramas, rom-coms and of course, The Office!
The University of St Andrews chapter of Her Campus!