Today I want to discuss a personal pet peeve in stories (both literary and on screen): what I’m going to call The Magic Dress Complex. This complex advances the idea that personal growth for a woman comes from the outside. The Magic Dress Complex is when a heroine’s proactive steps for self-improvement consist primarily of finding the perfect dress (or outfit) for a special occasion or perhaps embarking on some grand full body makeover.
If you’ve seen movies, if you read, if you watch television, then I’m certain you’ve encountered The Magic Dress Complex. Think of all the plots that feature a grand makeover montage or pages upon pages of detail about a heroine’s new look. She gets the latest, cutting edge hairstyle. She finally puts on makeup. She has a manicure and a pedicure. If it’s a longer timeframe, maybe she hits the gym or devotedly diets until she slims down and firms up. She buys trendy, flattering new clothes. Oh, and shoes. What is a magic dress without magic shoes?
Now our heroine looks different, which means she is different. Now she can do what she couldn’t before. Now she will get everything she ever wanted. The Magic Dress Complex implies that if a woman can sculpt herself into physical perfection then the rest of her life will fall into place. The Magic Dress Complex also implies that this change in appearance is the woman’s greatest accomplishment. (Emphasized by how these makeover sequences usually fall extremely close to, if not within, the story’s climax.)
I won’t dismiss the concept that an outward change can promote an internal one. Maybe a woman cuts her hair, because she’s feeling brave enough to take a risk. Her new hairstyle reminds her of her own bravery and bolsters her confidence. If she earns accolades she never did before, let’s say it’s her newfound confidence rather than the hair.
However, then look at the sheer number of these magical makeovers. And, yes, we do see them for men, too, but only a fraction as frequently. My issue isn’t with a physical difference (even one as simple as new clothes) empowering a woman; it’s how prevalent this magical makeover is as a woman’s gateway to discovering herself.
The simple fact is that I want to see as many stories as possible about women who make a big change in their life...but it’s not their hair.