CREDIT: Jonathan Olley – Disney
by Shreya and Altea
Cinderella – an ordinary girl turned beautiful to entrap her Prince Charming, which will go on to permanently alter the course of her life. In modern media, a female character sometimes has a “Cinderella like” makeover usually for a main event in the plot, recreating this fairytale. While to some it can seem like a harmless media trope, in reality it perpetuates the sexist construct of a woman changing to be more conventionally feminine for a man, in order to seem more like a desirable and better partner. There is usually a specific type of female character that ends up receiving the “Cinderella makeover”, a girl who is tomboyish and usually somewhat of a social outcast but who is dating a male character who is either very popular or rich. This trope appears quite frequently, some occurrences being more misogynistic than others.
If you were a mermaid-lover as a child, there is a large chance that you grew up watching H2O: Just Add Water, the an Australian TV show about three teenage girls who after spending time during a magical pool- the Moonpool-during a full moon, become mermaids when they touch water. The character that receives the “Cinderella moment” is Rikki, one of the mermaids who is particularly rebellious and very headstrong. She doesn’t come from a very wealthy family which she keeps a secret from her friends since she doesn’t want to be pitied. Halfway through the first season, she starts to date her previous nemesis, Zane, and they have similar personalities but he is very wealthy and spoiled at times. Rikki’s friends and fellow mermaids strongly disapprove of their relationship and they have a fight at the beginning of the episode. The main event that constitutes the “Cinderella moment” is that Zane’s dad is hosting brunch and Zane wants to bring a date (Rikki) but his father doesn’t approve so he buys her a dress (which she had previously spotted and liked) and takes her to brunch.
Rikki makes a dramatic entrance with Zane at the brunch, wearing a red, lace, tight-fitting, midi dress and makeup which has not previously been on her. The whole look made her look mature and elegant which is not an accurate descriptor of her personality. At the brunch, Rikki proceeds to act like an ordinary girl of high society, being very polite and presumably receiving approval from Zane’s father and the other guests. Everything seems to be going well until the purpose of the brunch and the plot of the episode is revealed: that Zane’s dad wants to develop Mako Island as a business venture. This would be a major problem for the mermaids, since they need to spend time in the Moonpool there. Rikki is seemingly frustrated and ends up speaking out, but gets told off by Zane which upsets her, so she runs away to Mako Island. In the end, Rikki goes back to the brunch and threatens to call the authorities since Mako island is home to many endangered species thus sabotaging Zane’s father’s plans to develop it. The final Cinderella twist is that while she is making her big speech on how she will sabotage Zane’s father’s plans, she has changed out of her dress which she then throws down on the table almost like she is rejecting the persona of the girl Zane and wanted her to be.
On the other side of the coin in teenage media: Stranger Things, a Netflix TV show about a small town in Indiana where supernatural things happen. In this instance, the character who receives the “Cinderella Moment” is El, a girl with supernatural abilities that is dating Mike, who has always been close with her and his gang of friends, including Lucas and his girlfriend Max. Unfortunately, El has to hide in her adoptive father’s house and can’t go out much for her own safety. In season 3, her and Mike start to have issues because her father is constantly threatening him and disapproving of their relationship. When Mike tells El he can’t hang out for a while, El knows he’s lying. She goes to Max and asks for her help, so Max brings her to the mall and they shop for clothes to give her a makeover.
The two of them go to various stores in the mall and buy her a whole wardrobe, all of this happening in a shopping montage with “Material Girl” playing in the background, a classic 80s image, brought to life by the neon colors and scrunchies that both girls are wearing by the end. But Mike and his friends approach El and Max after their shopping trip at the mall, getting angry with Max because it’s not safe for El to be out in public. In the end, El breaks up with Mike because Max tells her he’s being controlling, and they run away, leaving Mike with his friends. This is somewhat of a twist ending considering it was intended to make her relationship with Mike better, but it abruptly ends.
In both TV shows the female character has a makeover seemingly to make them feel better but related to making various male figures, usually somehow romantic-related, like them more. In H2O, Zane really wants his dad to accept Rikki but also wants to use her to spite him by showing that his father’s initial disapproval was unfounded. In Stranger Things, the goal of El’s makeover is to make Mike jealous/rekindle his feelings for her when he sees her post-makeover, in her “Cinderella” state. However the end results of the two TV shows are very different. El’s makeover empowers her to be stronger and take the initiative to break up with Mike, as she feels he isn’t treating her well. The makeover makes her a stronger female character, as she goes from dressing very simply and androgynously to very feminine, her power increasing through the reclaiming of femininity. However in H2O, Rikki’s makeover is used to make her seem more likeable and meek to Zane, treating the makeover as handing the power in her relationship with Zane over to him, and thus treating femininity as a detach of power. In the end she breaks away from this and takes the power back from him, going back to her more androgynous style of dress.Stranger Things treats the makeover like it’s empowering and positive for El to begin dressing more feminine, and El doesn’t stop being a strong female character when she dresses femininely, sending a message that femininity and power can coexist. H2O treats the makeover like Rikki is being brought down by dressing more girly. She was previously a very assertive character, but this makeover makes her lose her ability to stand up to Zane, sending a message that femininity is demeaning and one cannot be feminine and strong at the same time. Perhaps since H2O aired during the early 2000s, and the “Cinderella moment” was appealing to a different audience of young girls, they would have seen Rikki taking off her feminine attire to be feminist-alining an empowering from that time. Stranger Things was released in 2019 and appeals to a different audience of teenage girls, who can clearly see that a female character can be very feminine and very powerful.
-Shreya & Altea