By Valerie Kraft
Ah, the age-old trope: give a girl some contacts and a hair straightener, and suddenly you’ll discover she was Beautiful All Along! Just with some minor adjustments, of course.
But beautiful to who? Herself – or to the male gaze and the beauty standards that have been forced upon her since birth?
These were questions I struggled with growing up as someone who looked identical to the “before” picture in every teen movie makeover scene. I think back to a young me – with frizzy hair, braces, and glasses that definitely did NOT suit me, and remember watching movies like The Princess Diaries. As the infamous Paolo holds up photos of the “old” Mia at the end of her makeover and remarks, “only Paolo can take this and this and give you a princess,” I realized that I was the “this” in the equation – not the princess.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, such a realization is insignificant. I wasn’t devastated or suddenly obsessed with beauty or begging my mom for makeup, but such messaging isn’t so easy to shake off. When my mom and eye doctors mentioned contacts, I jumped at the chance. And as I got older and my hair grew even frizzier with age, I adopted the painstaking routine of straightening it daily. I grew more confident in my appearance – but was it because I truly liked the way I looked better? Or that I had been so brainwashed to view certain looks as beautiful?
I don’t blame The Princess Diaries for this. Hell, I didn’t even think about The Princess Diaries as I slowly adopted these new practices. But the fact of the matter is this: the beauty ideals set forth by the film are the ones Western society has deemed essential for women. Popular media continuously dictates that every woman should meet (or strive to meet) these expectations, lest she fall into the curse of undesirability.
So as I settled in to watch the 1993 made-for-TV musical film Gypsy, I knew I was in for the same kind of beauty “propaganda” that The Princess Diaries toted. After all, I knew a brief background of the plot: it was the biographical story of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, from being sidelined from the spotlight as a child to her burlesque stardom. Surely such a story would inevitably require some instance of transformation: after all, how could a shy, background child star become a confident burlesque queen?
With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (adapted from his book of the stage musical Gypsy, which in turn was adapted from Gypsy: a Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee herself) and music by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (composer and lyricist, respectively), Gypsy follows the story of the dysfunctional Hovick family and their increasingly desperate attempts at achieving stardom, as forced by matriarch Rose. Rose, played by Bette Milder, is a classic “stage mom,” obsessed with seeing her children become famous so she can live out her dreams of stardom vicariously. She totes her two daughters around the Vaudeville circuits with a cutesy routine starring “Baby June” and the obviously less talented Louise, a clear contrast established within the opening scenes of the film.
June (played by Lacey Chabert and later by Jennifer Rae Beck) is the perfect picture of expected femininity for a young girl. With her bouncy blonde curls, frilly dress, squeaky voice, and bubbly disposition, baby June dazzles audiences with her infectious happiness and dedication to entertaining the crowd. Yet, just steps behind her stands her sister Louise, who will one day become the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise (played by Elisabeth Moss and later by Cynthia Gibb), in contrast, is stripped from her femininity. Unable to model the cutesy feminine persona of her sister, Louise is barred from being feminine at all – instead, she is resigned to the chorus, where not only is she barred from her sister’s spotlight, but she also is dressed as boy, referred to as a boy, and in one performance, even forced to wear a beard to embody Uncle Sam.
Such an exile from female identity is unnecessary– despite her lack of talent, there’s no reason the act couldn’t have been “Baby June and her Newsies,” or some other gender-neutral term rather than “Baby June and her News Boys.” Why does Louise have to lose her female identity simply because she lacks the feminine persona of June? The answer is simple: women who fail to meet expectations of femininity are barred from it. If Louise can’t properly “behave” in the way young girls should, then she shouldn’t get to be a “real” girl at all – at least, not in the way June is. Sure, Louise is still expected to be submissive, demure, and nurturing (of course, as all girls should be), but she is barred from other aspects of femininity, such as beauty and courtship (by a male, of course. Yay heteronormativity!).
This is further highlighted as Louise and June age, but the act remains the same. Now a grown woman, Louise is still stuck in her sister’s shadow, but this time, she is now literally dehumanized in her new role as Caroline the Singing Cow. Face covered and voice removed (with the exception of a few “moos”), Louise is hidden by her mother simply because she does not live up to the standards of femininity embodied by June.
Ah, but remember – by the end of the film, Louise will transform into the beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee. And while the film needs to make clear her original deviance from femininity, it can’t go too far, because of course, she will still need to be attractive at the end of the film, despite her shaky beginning. So alright – she can’t be sexy and “beautiful” yet, but we still need viewers to know that she’s Still A Girl (and still available for heterosexual desire) – so we’ll throw in a random song to show her feminine, nurturing side! Let’s give Louise a baby lamb and have her sing “Little Lamb” so the audience knows for certain she’s still a girl under all of those male costumes and cow casting. After all, only girls have that nurturing, mothering instinct, right?
Though just in case any viewers start getting the wrong idea, the film makes it quite clear that Louise is still NOT beautiful or desirable (at least not yet). When one of the actors, Tulsa (played by Jeffery Broadhurst) fantasizes about breaking away from the act and starting his own, he sings “All I Need Is The Girl.” Despite being completely alone with Louise, despite literally having a girl available to him, ignoring Louise as an option quite firmly cements her as not “girl” enough to be desired. And though Louise is able to perform the dance – the only real requirement Tulsa needs – he still does not see her as an option. Instead, Tulsa later elopes with June, the ultimate proof that in order to be desired by men, one must fulfil the expectations of femininity and beauty.
So what changes? How does timid and “not desirable” Louise become the gorgeous and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee? The answer, of course, obvious: a good old fashioned beauty transformation.
With the help of burlesque performers who coach Louise on how to captivate audiences (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), along with Rose’s insistence that Louise fills in for a missing performer, Louise is finally forced to mold herself to fit societal beauty standards. Following her mother’s directions – “young and girlish, pure” and “your hair’s all wrong – it can’t just hang there like spaghetti” – Louise dresses herself in makeup, a dress, and jewelry for the first time in her life. As she catches her reflection in the mirror, Louise stares in shock. “Mama, I’m pretty?” she wonders, as she traces her curves with her hands and smiles, finally concluding, “I’m a pretty girl, Mama.”
This – this is the moment where Louise disappears for good. Where the film makes a sharp distinction between acceptable and desirable femininity – the beautiful Gypsy – and the shameful, childish past of Louise. It is in this new identity that Gypsy’s worth and value as a woman is affirmed.
Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only receives love and acceptance after becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, and by extension, achieving the expected ideals of femininity? Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only becomes confident and adored after discovering that she too can be beautiful (with the proper modifications, of course)? And though Louise lacks a singular love interest throughout the film, the heterosexual desire of men is finally “granted” to her when she sheds her Not-Quite-A-Girl skin and fully dedicates herself to fulfilling beauty expectations. It is this heterosexual desirability – the male gaze seeing and accepting Gypsy and her appearance – that serves as the ultimate proof of femininity’s achievement.
And so the cycle of beauty propaganda continues, timeless as always. And just as The Princess Diaries did to me, Gypsy communicates the same age-old message to female viewers: that you are undesirable in your cocoon, but one day, if you embrace femininity and transform yourself, you too can be a beautiful butterfly deserving of (heterosexual) love.
You too can be Beautiful All Along.