It’s a trope as old as time, or at least as old as an 80s movie. The mousy, sensible chick need only whip off her glasses and shake down her hair and surprise, surprise, under that pony tail and baggy sweater she was a hot piece all along. It’s an interesting trope with many shades permutations. The most disturbing of which, of course, is that this brand of overt sexualization somehow wins you the man of your dreams. The crowned queen of that particular plot, of course, being Ms. Sandra Dee.
That’s an outdated story that any TV show or film with half a brain these days would be unwilling to support. That doesn’t mean, however, that the trope is dead. Rather, these days, writers are more interested in subverting it with varying degrees of success. Here are a few examples of
Liz Lemon — “30 Rock”: Outside of Dan Harmon, no one subverts a pop culture trope quite like Tina Fey. In “Sandwich Day,” Lemon dresses to impress a visiting Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) complete with little red dress and well-aimed wind machine. She encounters him the very next morning, however, looking the opposite of her best and the wheels fall off their enchanted encounter.
The episode ends with one of my favorite Lemon moments of all time. She might not look her finest here, but her self-depricating, self-parodying humor is, after all, a more interesting and admirable aspect and why we all love her just exactly as she is.
Angela Chase — “My So-Called Life”: Though this beloved 90s drama starts with a drastic makeover, Angela dying her mousy hair bright red and adopting an “alternative” way of dressing, she’s still, for the most part, rather sweet and young looking. Favoring loose sweater, over-sized plaid and tights, Angela Chase, though adorable, is hardly a sexpot. But when she dresses up for a date with Jordan Catalano she looks more Kelly Bundy than anything else. Her neighbor Brian Krakow, who often says the right thing in the worst way, accuses her of looking like she’s in costume as someone else. And of course that’s appropriate for a young girl floundering to find herself. With hindsight he know that Jordan Catalano, despite his accomplished leaning prowess, is a train wreck and emotionally manipulative. I’d like to think that if she were given a few more seasons, Angela would have figured that out for herself as well.
Willow Rosenberg — “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”: Joss Whedon is known for battling the conception that a sexualized female is any way bad or evil. One of the best “supernatural evils as real life teenage drama” metaphors in the series centers around a young girl losing her virginity and the ensuing fall out and emotional trauma. But the girl is never the villain nor is she ever meant to feel shame. The same is true in the classic episode “Halloween,” in which the impossibly mousy Willow Rosenberg is encouraged to dress up in a way she never would. Largely to attract the attention of her oblivious friend Xander. Though she tries to literally hide under a sheet, Willow ends up exposed and the episode ends not with her getting her man but with her emerging with new levels of confidence. Willow doesn’t spend the rest of the series in leather mini-skirts. In fact she favors fuzzy sweaters and overalls for at least another season and a half. She’s also the subject of one of the cutest “who is that girl?” moments in any show ever. But Willow’s pride of stride at the end of the hour all about coming into her own sense of power. And it’s beautiful.
Felicity Porter — “Felicity”: Another young girl’s transparent attempts to get her man by dialing up the sex to 11. This one tragically backfires as Felicity attempts to not only dress out of her depth but pretend she’s okay with a casual, open relationship. Even folks who never watched the series know where this episode ended, with Felicity cutting off her trademark curly locks. It was a drastic but self-empowering move and given long hair’s centuries-old association with sexuality, the cut was more than a 19 year-old’s histrionics. It was a reclamation of a-typical beauty. Felicity (and Russell) eventually grew her hair back out, but never to quite the same length and volume.
Olive Pendergast — Easy A: Emma Stone’s Olive wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet devoid of sexuality before her Hawthorne-inspired social experiment, but her adoption of corset-only couture is meant to provoke, challenge and subvert. Easy A is handily one of my favorite movies in recent memory. I’ll never turn it off if it comes on cable. But it’s morality and clarity of purpose is sometimes murky. That being said it’s at its most delightful when it’s sending up that 80s comedy trope. (Specifically Can’t Buy Me Love, which is a rare gender-flipped Makeover Movie). In the end, Olive trades her corsets back in for a pair of jeans but not until she’s made her point about ladies and sexuality.
Peggy Olson — “Mad Men”: You’ll notice that with the exception of Tina Fey, most of the women on this list are teenagers. That’s because the whole notion that you’re so willing to contort yourself into something you’re not is, one would hope, an immature one. That’s why it was a little disappointing to see Peggy Olson, who’s come so far over six seasons, deck herself out to snag Ted Chaough’s attention. It worked and, of course, it didn’t. But, at the very least she got his measure. The hair, makeup and wardrobe department has done such an amazing job at showing Peggy’s slow sophistication. This episode was a set-back, but an understandable one. I doubt Peggy will do something like that again.