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Columns

April 29, 2013

COMMENTARY: Why does young adult fiction keep giving its heroines makeovers?

WASHINGTON — Over at This Ain't Living, s.e. smith (who, full disclosure, has guest-blogged for me at ThinkProgress) has an excellent post about one of the most pernicious trends in young adult fiction. The transformation of heroines, no matter their other merits, into skinny beauties has become an integral part of their hero's journies. smith writes:

"I see it coming up a lot in fantasy, probably most starkly there because authors can use magic as a quickie shortcut. The girl-turned-vampire who becomes supernaturally beautiful in the process, shedding all that excess poundage and frazzled hair and other mortal sins to turn into an unearthly creature with the kind of beauty that turns heads, startling and amazing everyone who mocked her looks before. Or the girl who uses witchcraft to beautify herself, taking philtres and using powders and spells to get rid of her undesirable ugliness, sometimes as part of an initiation into a group of other witches and magic users; finally, their unusual beauty is explained, and she too is one of them, embraced into their circle with the eyelash lengthening treatment that will last a lifetime."

This trope persists even as young adult fiction has offered young female characters roles that allow them to be physically strong, politically influential, or magically gifted. Its persistence says something about the value we still believe beauty offers women in any number of areas of their lives. Steve Jobs may be able to rock an Apple stage in dad jeans, a black turtleneck and unstylish sneakers for years, but tech titans like Marissa Mayer better rock perfect hair and heels. Michelle Obama may have had to suspend her career as a lawyer when her husband ran for president, but she's gained new influence as a style icon. Being gorgeous and well-groomed is, for female characters, both the equivalent of carrying a back-up power source in your purse and a form of influence of last resort.

I think smith is right that the makeover trope is tiresome, but fortunately there is a growing body of literature for young women that regards getting gussied up with a great deal more skepticism. In "The Hunger Games," when Katniss Everdeen is selected as a tribute in the fights to the death that entertain her post-apocalyptic country each year, she's also assigned a stylist who rips hair out of her body, fixes flaws in her skin, and dresses her up in dramatic outfits that help her make an impression on the shallow residents of the Capitol. The franchise recognizes the political power of these displays, but also acknowledges that they're profoundly inauthentic, disconnected from Katniss' true self, and in the case of the medical technology that erases her scars, it literally strips Katniss of her experience.

Similarly, both the Harry Potter series, which smith cites, and Tamora Pierce's recently concluded "Provost's Dog" series, characters have encounters with beauty culture without sucuumbing to it. Yes, Hermoine Granger gets made up for the Yule Ball, but she also decides that futzing with her hair constantly isn't worth it, and a case of the frizzies doesn't prevent her from playing a pivotal role in the battle to take down Voldemort — or finding the love of her life in Ron Weasley, a guy who dates more frivolous women but learns to adore Hermoine for her social activism and courage. And Beka Cooper, the main character of the "Provost's Dog" books, gets dressed up on occasion and over time acquires a collection of opals, her favorite gemstones. But she never loses her preference for the uniform she wears as a kind of medieval policewoman, or for braiding a spiked strap into her hair to keep anyone from grabbing it in battle. For both of these women, their power comes from their brains — and in Beka's case, her relatively unadorned body.

We may be a long way from the days when a makeover isn't part of the prize pack for YA heroines. But at least authors like Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, and Pierce can see that there are pleasures a woman would take in herself and her skills that aren't dependent on how other people look at their bodies and faces.

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