performing femininity from garbo to bowie


The French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” has become so ubiquitous as to be nearly meaningless. But in the ’40s it was revolutionary — it implied that gender was created by society, and it therefore freed women not only from the idea that they had to conform to femininity, but also from the fear that they were supposed to have been born already knowing how to “perform” it, and that they had somehow failed. This idea of gender performance was articulated more clearly in Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble, which defines gender as an illusion created by the constant acting out of the conventions of that gender — obscuring the contradiction and instability that is inherent in any person’s identity and gender identity specifically.

Makeup has always been something I’ve used as little of as possible — I like lipstick because it’s obvious, and it implies a lot more effort than it actually takes. I wear purple eyeliner to feel like Zenon. I wear mascara to try to make my way-too-squinty eyes look a little bit less so. But there’s a certain amount of shame in taking this utilitarian approach — why don’t I know how to do better? Who was supposed to teach me and when was I supposed to learn? It feels important, like a rite of passage, because it is one of the most heavily ritualized, commonplace forms of performative art and identity confirmation that human civilization has ever dreamed up.

Thelonia Saunders / Art Editor
Thelonia Saunders / Art Editor

Everyone is aware of the basic cultural connotations of lipsticks — dark red lipstick is seductive, pale pink is girly and innocent, matte is matronly, black is goth. But I’d like to imply that there is and has been a politics to lipstick — not just in the sense of “Lipstick Lesbians” or Riot Grrls who wrote “slut” on their bellies with Revlon, the ways the symbol was wielded deliberately — but in the sense that lipsticks’ connotations are not inherent to the colors, but were cemented as the lingering after-effect of the once politically-charged statements these shades could make. Make-up, after all, is not just a performative art, a ritual, a means of improving one’s image, or even a type of costuming — it is a demonstration of identity.

Take for example, Mad Men’s Betty Draper and Peggy Olson — one a housewife, the stand-in for millions of similar women during the show’s ’50s to ’60s time frame, and the other America’s prototypical early businesswoman, a subverter of post-war gender roles. Betty Draper is never seen without perfect, bright red lips, as was en vogue. These lips were symbolic not only of compliance to the never-stronger patriarchy, an acknowledgment of the fascination with women’s mouths and oral sex, but it was also used as evidence of a woman’s ability to be perpetually pristine, like their homes, families and blemish-free lives. Red lipstick is messy, red lipstick is obvious when it runs outside the lines, red lipstick gets on things — but not if you are perfect, not if you are Betty Draper. Peggy Olson doesn’t wear much makeup, but her big break comes during a focus group for a lipstick advertisement — ”mark your man,” is Peggy’s suggested tagline. She suggests that lipstick be mutated from something that you use to label yourself as feminine into something that you use to claim ownership.

According to Dr. Camilla Power, an anthropologist at the University of East London, cosmetic body art was “the earliest form of ritual in human culture.” Crayons, made from red ochre mineral pigments and associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa 100,000 years ago, were the first evidence of the deliberate creation of cosmetics. Lipstick as we know it, however, was not invented until many thousands of years later, probably by ancient Sumerians who crushed gemstones and decorated their lips and eyes. Ancient Egyptians extracted red dye from fungi and created the shimmering effect of lipstick with the pearlescent substance from fish scales, and in the 1800s, in Mexico and Central America, lipstick was colored by extracted carmine dye from the insect, cochineal.

This information does not imply that the makeup used by early civilizations had any political or cultural connotations, gendered or otherwise, only that it existed and it was ritualized. The earliest example of culture taking a stance on what makeup meant when used and used by women, is probably the Bible, in which Jezebel, the false prophet, is known for wearing heavy makeup and is described as “painting her eyes.” In fact, the Bible describes her applying makeup in the moments before her death, which occurs when she is thrown out of a window into a courtyard, and eaten by stray dogs.

Here begins the history of makeup as belonging to the transgressors — the women, the queer folk, the others. Painting your face is a form of deception, maybe, or perhaps inappropriate self-celebration, if you belong the category of “Other.” In Film Noir, Professor William Luhr points out an inconsistency in American collective memory — why do we associate dark red lipstick with the femme fatales of film noir, when almost all films noir were in black and white? “Considered from the vantage point of the 21st century,” he writes as explanation, “memory and its distortions are important components of film noir as we have come to know it … the color is meant to resemble that worn by glamorous seductresses in films noir and by this, indirect, symbolic path, recall film noir’s exotic, transgressive aura.” The original femme fatale, in fact, the German actress Marlene Dietrech, was nominated for an Oscar in 1930 for her performance in Morocco, a film in which she dresses androgynously in various reinterpretations of a tuxedo and kisses a woman. She was open about her bisexuality and also stated, atypically for the time, “I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men.” As a genre, film noir focused on the sexual motivations for human actions and gender roles as they evolved through the middle of the 20th century, and it was particularly fascinated with a woman’s capacity to use sex as weaponry. Today, seductive red lipstick is still associated with this era when sex was depicted as downfall, and sexual identity as cloaked in shadow.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago recently opened an exhibition of over 100 artifacts from the life of David Bowie, entitled David Bowie Is. The exhibition features the expected — album covers, handwritten lyrics, guitars — as well as the unexpected — his coke spoon, his manifesto for The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men and a tissue blotted with lipstick, dated 1974. The tissue would have been collected at the height of Bowie’s career, during the time when he used his androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust to completely subvert the definition of what it was to be a rock star — a definition which had mostly included effervescent masculinity. Stardust was the impetus of the United States’ entire glam rock era, affectionately referred to as the time “when boys wore lipstick,” mostly of atypical colors like purple, orange, lime green and those famous ’70s metallics. In the cover art for 1970s The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie wears what he calls a “man’s dress,” which he wore during his entire first U.S. tour. If today’s pop culture is criticized for betting on the sure thing — Katy Perry, blockbusters, another white guy on late night television — the ’70s glam rock era represented one of those rare moments in which pop culture can succeed at being progressive. Gender-bending and gender play were sold en masse, providing models of non-normative performances of gender and sexuality that served as a crucial respite from the rampant conservatism of the ’60s. These performances are now commonplace as a result — see Jessica Lange’s Dietrich/Bowie hybrid perform “Life on Mars” in this season of American Horror Story, or the Tony-award-winning revival of 1998’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a tribute to glam rock and a crucifixion of gender binaries, which cropped up this year and made a star of one glitter-soaked Neil Patrick Harris (once again), or one of the yearly iterations of Rocky Horror Picture Show in essentially every city in the United States. Look for their shades of orange on Solange Knowles, look for punk’s purples on Lorde (and in her “Pure Heroine” shade for MAC!).

In June 2014, the feminist beauty and fashion blogger Arabelle Sicardi published the first installment of a six week project entitled “Most Important Ugly,” in which she photographed men and women who identified as queer, transgender or as persons of color and talked to them about the way that makeup had influenced how they performed these marginalized identities. “I believe makeup is magic,” she wrote in the project’s introduction, “For so many people, it’s intimidating and scary and suffocating and heavy with the weight of expectations and failed fantasy. I was definitely one of those people for a long time. But somewhere along the way (read: my mall goth days at the age of the 13), I learned that blue lipstick could make boys recoil and make me look like an alien from Farscape. And so, I decided to change my tune. I would paint myself up into a witch who could protect myself. Duochrome eyeshadow that looked like spacetime, ice queen pink lips that were as cold as my attitude.”

One of those photographed for the project, an Asian-American woman named Melissa, chose to emulate the make-up worn in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the last part of a South Korean revenge trilogy in which the female protagonist is asked, “What’s with the red eyeshadow?” and responds, “I don’t want to look kind-hearted.” A queer woman named Becca chose to mesh a Maybelline mustache, a “nod to John Waters [her] favorite trash king” with the gold and blue eyeshadow that reminded her of watching her mother apply her makeup in the ’80s. A black woman named Indigo wore simple gold flecks on her cheeks and red lipstick, as well as a chilling grin, meant to make her appear “Cold and wicked and overjoyed, the archetype of our favorite villains and anti-heroes, the qualities of so many wonderful ignored girls in culture who were taught they were not enough for too many reasons.” Sicardi dubbed her the paragon of the project’s thesis: “Indigo uses make up as it please her, not how it pleases others. I think that was the end goal of the project — to internalize your desires and willpower so much that the thought of doing otherwise is just bizarre.”

In my photo on the editor’s page, I am wearing my father’s jeans and my boyfriend’s sneakers. When I wear them I feel compelled to wear red lipstick — what is more fun than contrast? Dress me up like a boy and paint me like the pretty picture of Taylor Swift — androgyny has been a quiet contributor to the way I have styled myself ever since that accidental bowl cut I received at age eight, which ruined my pre-fourth grade summer soccer season, and ever since I did not hit puberty in any way until college. Sicardi concludes at the end of her project, “You can confront and manage your insecurities by acknowledging the hold they have on you, and warping them. I guess that is considered ironic, some kind of camp humor, but really I just think it’s the best way of managing things.”

Sicardi’s project serves as case in point for the argument that lipsticks have an inherent politics to them. Each participant in her project interpreted his or her own anxieties and insecurities about his or her physical appearance through the lens of popular culture, gender norms, racial stereotypes and culturally-embedded ideas of beauty that have been knocked down and rebuilt throughout the course of human history. The fact that this diverse and disparate group of people all felt that their anxieties could be conveyed through makeup must count for something. And today, lipstick is not only the boldest makeup, that which when it is there is most clearly noticed, it is also one of those archaic identifiers of femininity that has been reclaimed by those whom it once oppressed, and joyfully appropriated by those whom it used to exclude.

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