“You can’t sit with us!”
I love the movie Mean Girls. I quote it with friends all the time. The high school drama and backstabbing are perfectly written and well-acted, and who doesn’t love LiLo before she got all coked out and sad? Tina Fey took a great book about what the world is like for girls in high school and turned it into a whip-smart cinematic gem that totally holds up. The (alleged) fact that the actor who plays Aaron Samuels is gay? Well, that’s just icing on the cake…call me?
I write a lot about makeup on this page. I love finding new products and playing around with them. I love bright colors, saturated shadows, and thick sultry lips. I love finding bargains, and I love spending a small fortune at my local Sephora. And I love, love, LOVE glitter! Glitter makes everything better.
Makeup should be fun, and makeup culture should be fun. It should be a chance for people to get together and share ideas and inspirations, recommend their favorite products and dish on which products have been duds. It should be an adventure. And sometimes it is.
At other times, it feels more like navigating your way through the cafeteria, and no matter how badly you want to sit with the Plastics, you’re wearing track pants. And it’s Monday. People can get downright vicious in their response to makeup culture, whether they think someone has too much or too little. The vitriol goes both ways, and the attacks can get pretty personal. As with all things of a sexist nature, sexuality usually gets involved: makeup aficionados becomes sluts and whores, and women who don’t wear makeup become ugly trolls or accused of being lesbians. Even people who are trying to support one side or the other try to denigrate the motives or character of the alternative view to get their point across.
Statements like “Maybe some of you girls should eat makeup, so you are pretty on the inside” and relating the amount of makeup someone wears to insecurity do nothing to help empower women; all it does is tell women that even if they play along with society’s expectations that they be pretty, and sexy, and made up for the visual pleasure of men, they still aren’t managing to do it right. It’s a lose-lose situation. It’s not like many women feel like they can just skip their morning makeup routine when magazines love to publish huge, full-color spreads of candid celebrity photos of women caught without their makeup.
Women shouldn’t feel compelled to wear makeup if they don’t want to, and women who love makeup and delight in painting up their faces shouldn’t be chastised or shamed. True, some women do feel pressured to use it because of how society treats women, but makeup itself isn’t the problem. It’s how we view women, and how society makes meaning out of their bodies and faces without their consent. Makeup is just a tool; how that tool is used, and what people make with it, is not the fault of the tool itself. Many people take great pleasure in using makeup, of being able to get creative with color and fantasy.
As a drag queen, I have a different relationship to makeup than most women. I’m not trying to create a specific fantasy to be viewed or consumed by men; instead, I’m using makeup to create a persona, and through that persona I’m able to explore and challenge a lot of these expectations and boundaries we place around women and femininity. Drag takes what is within the boundaries of femininity and expands it, pushing it towards its most illogical conclusion, and in the process it can call into question the very nature of femininity and how it’s constructed in our culture. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that drag is inherently feminist, but it absolutely has feminist potential.
In her own mean girl moment, Mary Cheney proved that the ignorant apple doesn’t fall far from the homophobic tree when she wondered (very publicly, in a Facebook post) why drag was acceptable as a form of entertainment when blackface is not. Yep. That happened. Setting aside the not completely surprising misunderstanding of racism by a white person (natch), Cheney’s argument says more about how she views women than it does about how drag constructs femininity. She claims that drag allows men to act out offensive stereotypes about women – that they’re slutty, catty, dumb, bitchy, etc. What that tells me is that Cheney herself is reinforcing a version of womanhood that is heteronormative, sexist, and frankly a little boring. By using those terms, Cheney herself is reiterating harmful ideas about women without even trying to reframe them or question them the way that drag can (and I think, should). Instead of being slutty, what if we called women sexually empowered? And what if that empowerment included the ability to say yes just as much as it includes the ability to say no? Drag queens are allowed to play that role for entertainment because they exist at the intersection of femininity and male privilege; it’s an entertainment, yes, but it can also be the beginning of an important conversation. And Cheney would do well to remember that the reason she’s able to be so free and open with her short-sighted judgments of non-gender-conforming individuals is because of all of the non-gender-conforming individuals at Stonewall who started throwing bricks and ushered in a new era of queer politics where, for the first time, queer folks didn’t have to apologize for their existence. You’re welcome.
Drag queens are a part of makeup culture, because makeup is a necessary part of our disguise. But we’re also separate from many of the day to day pressures that affect women and their relationship to makeup culture (again, let’s set aside the fact that within the community of drag performers there are individuals with all kinds of relationships to gender and different kinds of gendered identities who experience sexism in vastly different ways – this is a blog post, after all, not a dissertation!). There are some men who seem to be trying to use male privilege to question society’s pressure on women to wear makeup; Macklemore, an openly supportive ally of the LGBT community whose gay-positive “Same Love” introduced out singer-songwriter Mary Lambert to legions of new fans and became a “right to marry” anthem, has said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing women they looked better in their makeup.” A nice sentiment, right? For women who feel pressure to make themselves up to match men’s expectations of them, here’s a man saying that women look beautiful naturally. But therein lies the problem: it’s still a man setting the standard. Women should get to decide for themselves if they want to wear makeup, when and how much, and what’s appropriate for them. Instead of men telling women whether or not to wear makeup, we should be telling men that women can decide all of that for themselves without a man’s help.
There is a small grain of truth in the argument that makeup is tied to insecurity, but it’s not that the more insecure a woman is, the more makeup she wears. Makeup is tied to insecurity because we live in a culture that tells women that they have to be beautiful and polished and sparkling in order to gain men’s approval. We need to develop a culture that nurtures the self-esteem of girls and women so that they can make their own choices about makeup. If they are making those choices for other people, then no matter what they choose they are making the wrong decision. I hope that by being a crazy, queer, non-gender-conforming entertainer, I can help manifest that sort of culture, but I can’t do it alone. Drag queens can’t do it alone. And you can damn well believe that Mary Cheney isn’t going to do it for you. She’s too caught up in this current milieu of “we have to look and act just like straight people in order to move forward” gay politics. But that’s a rant for another time…
We all need to do our best to muzzle our inner mean girls. Have I seen some makeup users who look a busted mess? Why yes, yes I have. I created a whole blog post about bad eyebrows. Some of the trends we see won’t work for us, and there is not reason to think we can never be critical of the hot new style or what all the “cool kids” are doing. I couldn’t stop myself from being critical if I tried! But in the interests of building a more open and creative makeup culture, let’s focus on products and techniques rather than on each other. Women who choose to wear lots of makeup are not whores; women who go without makeup are not trolls. If someone makes a misstep and tries out a look or a color that isn’t flattering, this shouldn’t be used to question their character or value – any of us who were alive in the 80s have some sort of photographic proof that you can make terrible style choices (those 80s haircuts, though…) and still be a decent, worthwhile human being.
Makeup is an amazing tool – it can transform your face. I am reminded of that every time I paint for a show. But you have to transform for the right reasons, not because you feel you have to or that your value is somehow tied to how much or how little makeup you have on your face. When I’m writing in the Makeup Forum, my aim is to share things that I love and that make me feel special, or to give cautionary tales about products that totally bombed for me. I may get sassy in my posts, but my aim is never to tell a reader what they should or shouldn’t do with their faces, or how to construct their faces to match up with their identities. Call me unrealistically utopian, but I think we can create a beauty culture where people are welcome to drop in and dabble as much or as little as they want, to paint themselves up in whatever colors make them feel beautiful and special and gorgeous.
Except on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, we wear pink.
Tags: Aaron Samuels, beauty, beauty culture, bitches, cosmetics, drag queens, Feminism, inner beauty, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Mackelmore, makeup art, makeup culture, Mary Cheney, Mean Girls, Miss Jaye, RuPaul's Drag Race, self-empowerment, self-esteem, sisterhood, World of Champagne