Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.
Nothing exploits the unrelenting personal insecurities of a young person like a teen movie with a makeover scene. It sells a dream to the self-conscious: With a swipe of mascara, you, too, can be popular. You, too, can be gorgeous. (As gorgeous as a fully matured, traditionally beautiful 26-year-old actress cast for a high school role in which she must wow audiences with her remarkably heightened looks post-makeover!) You, too, can be prom queen. You, too, can be loved (by the same shallow classmates who were mean to you before the winged eyeliner).
Two of my favorite “makeover” teen movies are 1999’s She’s All That and the 2006 comedy She’s the Man, based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In She’s All That, Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) bets his friend that he could make any woman the prom queen. His unknowing project is Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), a dorky, artsy girl who wears her paint-splattered canvas apron to school each day.
The transformation is less traditional in She’s the Man. After the girls’ soccer team gets cut at Cornwall High School, Viola (Amanda Bynes) needs to prove she’s talented enough to play on the boys’ team. When they deny her the chance, she sneaks off to Illyria, a prestigious boarding school where her twin brother Sebastian (James Kirk) is enrolled. (Sebastian, whom school faculty has conveniently not met yet, ditches the first two weeks of class to perform at a music festival in London with his band.) Cornwall plays Illyria the first game of the season. If Viola, disguised as her brother, can make the Illyria team and beat Cornwall, her point will be proved, albeit in a remarkably impractical way. Because the movie is based off of a Shakespeare play, the plot is a tad more complex than a typical teen movie. Viola also falls in love with Duke (Channing Tatum), Illyria’s striker and her roommate, who thinks she’s Sebastian. He develops feelings for her, too—as Viola and, at moments, as Sebastian. High jinks and homophobia ensue.
Both makeovers change the madeover person’s high school reality dramatically and permanently. But who benefited more from their transformation? Which ultimately proved to be more advantageous: becoming all that or becoming the man? Let’s investigate.
Success of Makeovers
Of course, both makeovers were successful—the plots depended on it. But at what cost? In She’s All That, Laney is made over against her will. Zach wants to take her to a party to boost her popularity (or maybe because he’s begun to like her by this point; I have a hard time understanding Prinze’s more subtle facial cues), but Laney insists she can’t. She has to clean up her house that afternoon. Ever-persistent and overstepping, Zach shows up at Laney’s door with the junior varsity soccer team, which proceeds to clean her entire house. (I know what you’re thinking and yes, teenage boys who have yet to discover personal hygiene are exactly who I’d want cleaning my home as well.) Laney says she has nothing to wear; Zach holds up a tiny red dress as if that’s a normal thing to have in his possession. Laney says she looks like a mess; Zach’s younger sister, Mackenzie (Anna Paquin), arrives at the door with a makeup kit. (She will later chop off Laney’s hair.) It’s all incredibly intrusive and possessive, but, you know, in a sweet way.
After removing Laney’s glasses, audiences discover that—shockingly—this previously unattractive (by the standards of her classmates) woman is actually beautiful. Success!
In She’s the Man, the makeover has to be a complete identity shift. Viola employs her hairdresser friend Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) to turn her into a convincing boy. After a montage of trying on multiple mustaches and spinning her in a chair, Viola is given a pretty standard semi-long layered brown wig. She practices walking like a boy by following men on the street and wraps her chest in elastic bandage. When Paul drops a fully disguised Viola off at Illyria, he asks to hear the voice she’s rehearsed. Throughout the movie, Viola’s “Sebastian voice” is a blend of Southern drawn-out syllables and a blaccent, barely lower in tone than Viola’s.
Technically, it’s a success; no one realizes that it’s Viola, and not Sebastian, for weeks. But there is sacrifice with her deception. Her wig must never fall off. She must shower at 4 a.m., long before any of the other boys are awake, which means keeping her smelly chest wraps on long after soccer practice has finished. Again, it’s an all-boys dorm. Imagine that hallway. That room. That bathroom. Can you smell it from whatever screen you’re reading this on?
Winner: Viola. I know it seems like an upset, but at least it was her choice. Laney was perfectly fine being a stereotypical art student before Zach forced his sister on her lashes. Accept people as they are!
In both films, the girls are made popular only after cruel intervention. At a party in She’s All That, Zach’s untouchably popular ex-girlfriend Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) demands to know why Laney is there. “I was invited,” Laney says. Taylor pours a drink down Laney’s dress (despite it being a semi-creepy gift from Zach, the red dress is actually pretty cute). “Thank you,” Laney tells her. “Thank you. For a minute there, I forgot why I avoided places like this, and people like you.” Laney runs out of the party (possibly the least-athletic gait I’ve ever seen), trips, and cries. On Monday at school, Laney’s peers not only surprisingly congratulate her for standing up to Taylor, but she’s been nominated for prom queen. Mortifying, and that rum and Coke will never come out of silk like that, but hey! She’s popular.
The tactics used in She’s the Man were more deliberate. Viola complains to Paul over the phone that the plan isn’t working. Not only was she made second string after tryouts, she’s hopelessly unpopular. Paul hatches a plan: At a pizza parlor where everyone hangs out, including Duke and members of Illyria’s soccer team, Viola as Sebastian is approached by multiple women (Viola’s teammates at Cornwall, who are in on the plan), whom she turns away. Being wanted by and rejecting the women publicly is enough to get Viola in.
Winner: Viola. Sure, deeply ingrained sexist power dynamics were commissioned, but no women were actually harmed in the making of this plan, whereas Laney was humiliated and had a drink poured down her dress.
For the sake of avoiding more objectification than is already present in these two movies, I won’t consider Prinze’s and Tatum’s looks while rating this category. Zach tricks Laney, while Duke is tricked by Viola. Both are really good at soccer. We learn Zach has gotten into Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard, but later admits he’s considering art school. (Worth noting: He has no art experience.) Duke has difficulty talking to women and recoils at the sight of a clean, unused tampon. He’s also scared when he finds himself attracted to “Sebastian” (Viola) in their shared dorm because Viola impersonates a female voice, and after seeing a tarantula just moments later, hugs “Sebastian” in fear. Duke appears embarrassed that they ever shared that intimacy, and tells her to never do that voice again.
Winner: Zach. Duke has yet to explore his sexuality and I want more for Viola. What if she needs tampons and he’s at the store? Can he even walk down the feminine hygiene aisle without getting heart palpitations from fear of judgment?
Who had less of a traumatic experience post-makeover? Our two female protagonists have drastically opposite emotional experiences in their respective films. Laney is deceived, manipulated, and debased the entire film. She’s pretty and popular now, but also learns in public that she’s the subject of a friendly wager between men. Viola’s time at Illyria is less scarring. She only has the burden of knowing that she is misleading others, including her ex-boyfriend, brother, parents, new schoolmates, new principal, a woman who falls in love with her dressed as Sebastian, and Duke. However, Viola also sees a loose tarantula in one scene, and they are scary.
Winner: Laney. She was emotionally manipulated for six weeks, but takes this round for never having to deal with a tarantula.
Viola is told multiple times in She’s the Man that she is “the man,” while the titular “all that” is said just once in She’s All That, when a group of her peers are rapping outside of class about Laney’s chances at prom queen. (Her top competition is Taylor, Zach’s ex-girlfriend.)
“Taylor used to be the thing, but now she’s not / Laney’s going for prom queen and Taylor’s hot / But we don’t give a damn about Taylor Vaughn / Cause Taylor’s fading out, and Laney’s on / If I could get with Laney, it’d be real cool / With the queen by my side, we’d run the whole damn school / Keep it on the break and I’m gonna keep this cool. … Laney / She’s all that.”
Winner: Viola. Being “the man” flips a gender norm. (Sort of.) Plus, outside of the movie, I’ve never heard anyone being called “all that,” only that someone “thinks” they’re “all that.”
Laney doesn’t win prom queen. She does have a good time at the prom, though, or at least that’s what she tells her dad when she gets home. Viola’s goal does partially come true. She’s promoted to first string and starts the game against Cornwall, when she reveals that she’s a woman. After this revelation, Viola plays the rest of the game—as herself—and scores. Illyria wins. (She also plays the rest of the game with her hair down, not tied up with a ponytail. I can’t tell you how impractical this is.) It’s unclear what she wanted to happen after (to return to Cornwall and play with the boys’ team?), but before the end credits, she’s shown playing next to Duke still on Illyria’s team. They even take a break from playing soccer to make out. It’s not impossible to navigate being a couple on the same team—USWNT members Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris are married. But you have to think making out midgame isn’t the way Viola convinces her Illyria coach to let her stay on for the rest of the season.
In the beginning of the movie, Viola—a center forward—says she wants to play for the University of North Carolina next year. The movie was released in 2006, meaning she’d be a freshman for the 2007 season. In 2006, UNC had three future USWNT forwards. Heather O’Reilly would’ve graduated Viola’s senior year, but Casey Loyd and Whitney Engen were with the program until 2009. (Engen transitioned to the back line in 2008.) It’s not impossible that Viola could get a scholarship considering the room on the front line and the increased attention she’d draw as the only female player on a prestigious boys’ team, if she can ever learn to tie up that damn hair.
Winner: Viola. Go Tar Heels.
Which Was More Advantageous?
Viola wins out, 4-2. I hope Laney broke up with Zach and went to art school and met someone who likes her, with or without glasses, because being all that isn’t all that.