The Political Power of Makeup


The last few months have been interesting from a purely cosmetic angle seeing the intersectional lobby and feminists go from dusty, school mams to characters worthy of a Warner Brothers melodrama of the 1940’s.

With the ever-changing landscape and people unaware often of the power of a lipstick (so many column inches have been dedicated to this subject its amazing), and the fact that the cosmetics are amongst the highest selling items historically on a par with the arms trade, I have been watching the leaders battle royale with a jaded artistic eye.

Seeing the conscious or subconscious efforts to portray themselves as a different kind of woman and show themselves to be worthy of the position of leader the overt tells that to the untrained eye look like a stylist and makeup artist has been called and given a brief of “make me look powerful and feminine.”

Divided into three distinct camps it is truly entertaining to see the efforts going into showcasing like peacocks (an irony lost on them it’s the male of the species that displays), we see the characters of melodrama and the detailed efforts of display through wardrobe and makeup to portray a certain demeanour.

Starting at the base we have the virginal, English rose look with pale pinks and soft tones designed to soften the face and give a more universal appeal to someone who by any other metric blends in, a partial mistake that really does no favour as the words belie the look so often that it becomes a Paddington Bear scenario, we see a cute little bear in a coat and forget that this is a wild animal with teeth and claws, far from the image portrayed it becomes a false coat and artifice designed to pull you in.

The second is the sweeping grandeur of a bold red lip is something that is designed (psychologically) to mimic female genitals and serve as a reminder of virility and sexuality, teamed with blocks of black and dark jewel tones to portray the barroom vamp and show a sense of power.  Which fails when the voice cracks and the grand sweeping gestures are jittery and demanding power through complicity rather than earned, entertainingly contradictory and ultimately laughable.

Finally, the school mam, boxy and plain with an array of pussy bow necklines and flat features barely touched with a cosmetic flourish, the lips are a secondary thought artfully designed to give the appearance of knowledge without being threatening.   Emulating an older school and matriarchal sense of accomplishment that while supportive has the iron fist in the velvet glove (an add on that so far has been missed sadly).

Where this all fails is simple, it is all artifice which cosmetics essentially are and relies on a two fold thought process of I am woman hear me roar followed by the more subtle subtext of please.

Makeup has been used for centuries by men and women (most recently and effectively in theatre and film) to create a character and without the effort and conviction of going deep into the model you have created and living the part rather than just projecting what you Think the people want to see, which in truth if we look at the parliament or even the social media world, is all this comes down to:

A political power play that is artificial and lacks substance so often that it becomes obvious and with only the most surface level interrogation and a little google search falls apart and shows the truth:

The emperor has no clothes.

This is not to say that men do not use basic tricks of “costume”, there is just more subtlety at play and a classic example of this would be the presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy, while Kennedy was chronically ill he had the savvy to hire a makeup artist to create an illusion for the camera, which Nixon did not and it showed clearly in the images and video still viewed to this day of a calm and collected Kennedy verses a sweating more fidgety Nixon who appeared unworthy of his position purely on the visual cues of his look and behaviour.

Primarily we see this in the current context with suits and clothing choices, pinstripes have always been associated with banking, a black suit with mourning and a comedy tie with a lack of personality.

Do not get me wrong, the changes in makeup have hit the men to and its now common to see concealer and BB cream alongside skincare designed for men, a trend started in cinema and theatre, we are seeing a wave of savvy (and not so savvy) power plays that are incorporating cosmetics to give an edge to their narrative and polish (debatably) themselves as skilfully as their words.

The savvy and often overlooked trick used in TV and transferable to the context of a political environment (especially now we see cameras at PMQ’s), is to disguise the late nights and excesses with a touch of concealer under the eyes or a primer to blur the skin.  All within the realms of grooming and added a subtle touch to the game that is politics.

Once you see it you really cannot look the same way at these political figures and gain a little more insight into the political games and machinations that even cosmetics have become part and parcel of, taking the available tools and working them for better or worse to further an agenda.