Saturday, September 06, 2008

Buttercup Faces The Night


Make up and lipstick. The perfect mask.

Combined in the right manner it can enhance, allure, or terrify. The ritual of taking on the mask is as old as organized religion. Nail polish can be traced back to 3000 B.C. According to one source women used to use burnt matches to darken eyes, berries to stain lips, and young boy's urine to fade freckles. Some would drink ox blood to improve complexion.

In history, in some religions and cults, taking on makeup was considered a way to assume the mask and possibly the mantle of godhood, or at very least, divine approval. Consider the Native Americans wearing war paint into battle. Perhaps its the idea of the religious connotation of certain makeup practices as opposed to its secular and libidinous use that has drawn such ire from religious fundamentalists over the years.

Given the idea that makeup is more than just something applied in haste at the beginning of the day, doors open for intriguing consideration.

I am fascinated by all role stretching in a society. Ethnic and racial roles. Gender roles. Class roles. Political roles. As a writer, it's rich subtext. Threading something as small as the use of makeup into a short story can tilt things in a strange and disturbing way.

Think about the sudden appearance of an ominous message on a mirror written in lipstick. What about the violation of someone rendered helpless and while in that position, has their face ridiculously made up, smeared with lipstick and powder as a mask of humiliation. Consider the image of the cosmetologist at the funeral parlor, working the corpse so that its appearance is "natural" and pleasing to the living.

In the end all masks fall away and what remains is the inevitable unveiling. Hmmmm. Given a choice between on one hand dressing up in yellow pinifore while wearing glitter lipstick and bright pancake powder, and on the other hand, facing the darkness that hides outside the window and crouches in our dreams, I'll take the glitter and glam.

Just call me Buttercup.

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Interesting. I posted about something somewhat similar today, an article that I'm going to do on transvestism, which is putting on the mask in a way.

SQT said...

This is interesting in so many ways. Make-up is something that I always associate with women, so it is disturbing to see men, like Michael Jackson, who use it-- beyond even the other distorting he's done to his appearance.

But I guess the point your post makes is that it isn't something that started with women. The war paint. The way men used it to intimidate like the Joker in "The Dark Knight." To me, that historical usage, makes the contrast between them and the men who use it to feminize their appearance is even more jarring. I need to go over to Charles' blog and see his take on the topic.

Vwriter said...

Transvestitism, masks, and "...call me buttercup." Is this what going back to school does?

Anyway, let me add that in the world of martial arts, ninjutsu in particular, masks were worn expressly to induce fear in the target population.

Also, ninja assassins sometimes dressed as women (real women assassins were called kunoichi), to penetrate the Samuari castles. Women were then as now less likely to be suspected of lethal intent.

Just another quick point- in China, masks were worn in certain villages to terrify the dead themselves and keep them at bay. Many of these masks, when analyzed using modern forensic technology, bear a remarkable resemblance to Boy George.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, it's funny, I separate transvestism from the mask and make up experience. Maybe it's because the makeup here serves a purpose outside of gender.

SQT...distorting appearance, distorting reality is disconcerting, yes? I remember when I first saw the Joker, I thought: This is terrifying. This is much more terrifying than someone bleached by falling in a vat of acid. This guy is scary, because he is choosing to wear white makeup and lipstick. Isn't clown makeup the most disturbing makeup anyway?

Vwriter, the Asian experience with makeup would take me to a whole different place. Look at the geisha makeup. And of course, that would also lead us into some discussion of body modification.

Lana Gramlich said...

This post reminds me of the first dead person I had to see. My cousin thought I was just being shy at her father's funeral. I was raised Jewish, & learned that you don't look at the dead, empty shell of a person (I was glad of that when my dad died.) I much preferred to remember my Uncle in life; his zest, his humor, his big heart. But I didn't want to insult my cousin, so I went for a look. Everyone was commenting on how good he looked. I just felt like I was at Madame Toussaud's. I still prefer to remember my Uncle in life, & I push the memory of his waxen, dead face away at every given chance.

Donnetta Lee said...

Stewart: This made me think of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Remember her talcum white face and crimson lips? Just made me shiver! Good observations. (Better go wash my face!)
Donnetta

SQT said...

Isn't clown makeup the most disturbing makeup anyway?

Oh for sure! I was reading a book recently by Rob Thomas, a paranormal fiction writer, and she incorporated the Scottish bogeyman legend of the Bodach into her story, but made it even more menacing by suggesting they wear clown make-up to get close to children. Chilling!

Aimless Writer said...

That was a little scary...

Stewart Sternberg said...

lana, that was the sort of memory I was hoping to conjure with this post. I wonder how old you were at that time. I am fascinated (and I don't mean to sound morbid here) by children's understanding of death.

Donetta, Bette Davis is a great example. Even though the film was B and W, it still comes across. If they remade the film, the pancake makeup would have to get its own billing

SQT, Aimless, I agree with both. I think what's probably creepiest about clown makeup, besides everything, is how it disembodies the eyes.

Zoe Winters said...

hehe. By contrast, I never wear makeup. It annoys me. It feels gross on my skin. Just freaking hate it. Sometimes I get in the mood to wear it if I'm going out somewhere nice or I'm going to see someone who used to be cuter than me. (Hey I'm a girl, and we do this stupid shit sometimes) but otherwise, nah. I usually leave the makeup in the drawer to dry out.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Having lived in northern "prairie-type" environments where women wear no make up and in big Southern Cities like Dallas, the kingdom of Mary Kay, it does make you wonder why the regional differences? The city versus country argument is much easier to understand. I'm always surprised to go home to Denver and find I'm probably the only one for a city block wearing a little bit of everything.

I don't really have a theory. I don't think women are closer to nature up north. I'm sure it's as ingrained in the southern climate as fans and mint juleps.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Just call me Wanda, Stewart. I wish I still had the photos, though...