Fictional high schools have long been cruel to attractive actresses. Take the adorable Mae Whitman, for instance—she stars as the title character in The DUFF, which opens today. The acronym stands for “designated ugly fat friend.”
Now, as Todd VanDerWerff writes over at Vox, DUFF doesn’t exactly mean what you think it does. “The film goes out of its way to argue that anybody can be a DUFF in pretty much any situation,” VanDerWerff explains. “It’s all about confidence and projecting that you’re comfortable in your own skin.” Even so, it seems strange to stick Whitman with the label—and as EW’s Kevin P. Sullivan notes, “In some ways, Bianca (Whitman) is your typical ‘different’ high school heroine. She wears flannel, edits her school’s paper, and has weird interests in unpopular things like zombies.”
So yeah: Teen films have a tradition of implying that beautiful movie stars are dowdy high-schoolers. And even when they don’t call those characters “ugly” or “fat,” they do imply they’re somehow in need of improvement—which is so not the case. For example:
Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club (1985)
Allison Reynolds starts as a lying, pixie-stick-eating, dandruff-shaking “basket case” with a penchant for wearing black and a (great) shaggy haircut. But all she needs to nab the “athlete” is to wipe off that eyeliner, get a headband, and change into some pastels—because Ally Sheedy was already gorgeous.
Brittany Murphy in Clueless (1995)
Tai doesn’t need much of a makeover to become a “Botticelli chick”—but when she first arrives at Bronson Alcott High School, she’s a “project” for Alicia Silverstone’s Cher, who does away with her hair dye, her baggy clothing, and makes her work out, even though her buns are already tiny. (Granted, they “don’t feel nothing like steel.”)
Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That (1999)
She’s All That is perhaps the go-to example for how Hollywood thinks putting glasses on a girl makes her somehow less attractive. Interestingly, Laney Boggs isn’t necessarily supposed to be ugly: In fact, Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) says he can deal with someone who is “fat” or has “some sort of fungus” over what Laney is: “scary and inaccessible.” It still takes some tweezing and a haircut before this art freak becomes an instant prom queen candidate.
Alyson Hannigan in American Pie (1999)
Jim (Jason Biggs) settles for Michelle Flaherty, whom he calls a “flute-toting band dork,” since she’s the only person willing to go out with him following his unfortunate webcam incident. (Don’t remember? It involves premature ejaculation.) And sure, Michelle starts just about every sentence with “this one time at band camp”—but she looks like Alyson Hannigan, and she’s also completely in charge of her sexuality. Which, ultimately, makes her way more awesome than Jim.
Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001)
Hathaway has played the ugly duckling-turned-swan more than once in her career—let’s not forget Devil Wears Prada—but her first transformation came when as high school student Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. Mia’s grandmother (Julie Andrews, how could you?) has Paolo (Larry Miller) transform her so as she can look the part of Princess of Genovia, even though she’s plenty cute pre-makeover. Luckily, Mia’s friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) has the good sense to call her out—even if she is sort of mean about it.
Lizzy Caplan in Mean Girls (2004)
In more recent work, Caplan is a bona fide sex symbol, but the world was first introduced to her as Mean Girls’s Janis Ian with hair made out of, according to her, “your mom’s chest hair.” Of course, Janis, we learn, is something of a self-made outcast after being tormented by Regina George (Rachel McAdams).
Emma Stone in Easy A (2010)
In Easy A, the audience is supposed to believe that Emma Stone’s Olive starts out “anonymous, invisible to the opposite sex.” Hard to imagine anyone could overlook Emma Stone. (Earlier in her career, Stone played a more extreme version of a DUFF-like character in 2008’s The House Bunny—but that took place in college.)
Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie (2013)
Though Carrie’s upbringing makes her a high school pariah, in the 2013 Moretz never totally fits the part as an outsider. When she blooms at the prom, she doesn’t really look that different. And neither Moretz nor the original Carrie, Sissy Spacek, look the way that Carrie is described by Stephen King at the beginning of his novel: “She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.”