Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Modern Myth continued


Women have always painted their faces. Nowadays, they are bombarded by adverts calling for the constant renewal of the contents of their make-up bags. Magazines suggest completely new products every 3 to 9 months. Designer prices for Chanel lipstick and Dior concealers are through the roof.

In the past, the message behind make-up was simple. If you wore make-up, you would attract the man you needed for financial and emotional security. Since feminism brought women into the workplace and reduced their direct reliance on men, a new myth has had to be constructed around the same old products: a new need has been created for make-up that makes them look not only young, sexy, pretty and attractive, but now also appears professional, hard-working and capable.

Advertising now works in several ways: the same old products are being rebranded to seem as though they have been entirely transformed by twenty- and-twenty-first century advances in science. Bewildering graphics show women the magical properties of foundation that ‘works with’ pores and ‘matches’ the colour of complexions, mascara that ‘rolls across’ lashes to give ‘infinite length’ and ‘divine cover’. L’Oreal promises ‘Professional make-up’, the amazingly expensive and popular MAC offers ‘Artistry and technology’.

The message is that women have become free, nowadays, and the myth hides the fact that the degree of sexual and working equality genuinely achieved has been counterposed by ‘choice’- consumer power instead of real power. The enormous cosmetics industry is working desperately to hide any unconscious memories of little girls playing with face paint, or of mothers and grandmothers covering their faces to become sexual objects, and has put a new meaning into mascara wands. Building on make-up’s transformative powers, they have simply replaced the previous goals; purity, femininity - or even old-fashioned vampiness - with new ones. Make-up now ‘works’ to make women eternally youthful and ‘blemish-free’, and even to emphasize women’s ‘working qualities’ i.e. that they are ‘still on the sexual market’ and still able to ‘play at being a man’ at work, rather than wasting time having babies, dealing with the menopause etc.

The cosmetics industry is thus using the anxiety caused by the backlash against second-wave feminism, an anxiety tied up with the socially constructed problems of ‘having it all’, to lure women away from continuing the fight for equality, and simultaneously to limit this fight to something achievable by individuals through conspicuous consumption. This anxiety has gradually led to a new attitude that one can be taken seriously and still look pretty these days: let’s forget all that nonsense about burning bras and buy into the new construction of independence. Make-up has a new image as both ‘fun’ and ‘authoritative’ which, despite appearing to empower women, actually props up the status quo’s congenital gender inequalities and undermines the confidence it appears to give women.

Women are shown to have seized science and technology, and made it work for them in the form of ever more ‘advanced’ cosmetics. Of course, where women’s equality is tied up with taking an area of a men’s world and turning it to their own, gender-specific, even sexualised, use, they are quite clearly still in the harem.

While the new, scientific mask of make-up advertising encourages the ‘working woman’ aspect of the new, conflicted myth of femininity to identify with consumption, the make-up myth also stifles our creative sides. Just like women’s scientific know-how is undermined by the mumbo-jumbo on their make-up packets, their creative impulse is drowned in the game of putting on face paint, and the importance of creation is drowned beneath a wave of beauty myth make-believe. Make-up has long been worn by both genders in a variety of different situations, so the logic which now proclaims that it is not congenitally sexist does have a basis in truth. The face-paint itself is not the problem, but the new myth that has been constructed around it can only deepen the chasm between male and female and cheapen any struggle for a serious reassessment of gender stereotyping and across-the-board equality for both sexes.

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