“A wonderful dream come true!” (Cinderella, Disney, 1950)
By Emma Jacobs, Endangered Bodies contributor
It’s the ultimate fairy-tale. Cinderella, the enslaved heroine — soot-stained, rag-ridden, oh-so-humble — holds her breath and makes a wish and with a shower of sparkles she is transformed, now a ball-gowned princess, at last lovely both outside and in. She’s worked hard, she’s suffered quietly, and so she is deserving of the Fairy Godmother’s greatest gift: beauty. “Why!” cries Disney’s Cinderella, “It’s like a dream! A wonderful dream come true!”
Cinderella stories have existed in countless variations throughout human history, from Ancient Greece to the Tang Dynasty to the Islamic Golden Age. We’ve always been fascinated by the “before” and “after” of the makeover. And like all good fairy-tales, the makeover is in essence a morality story. Beauty, it tells us, is something you earn; ugliness is for the lazy.
This moral lesson has been woven into TV makeover shows since they began in the 1940s and ’50s (incidentally, around the same time Disney’s Cinderella first came to the big screen). In US studio gameshows like Queen for a Day and Glamour Girl, women competed for the viewers’ sympathies by confessing their stories of misery, hardship and marital trouble. Whoever got the most applause from the audience was rewarded for her suffering with a beauty-queen makeover, and the obligatory sense of self-worth that accompanied it. As the NBC brochure for Glamour Girl noted, “the girl is changed not only in appearance but also in her outlook on life. We see her poised, secure and smiling. This creation of a new personality has great human interest appeal.”