Is Makeup Feminist or Sexist? Both? Or Maybe Neither!

By Tova Lenchner

He doesn’t kiss you anymore? Why not apply a little bit of the right lipstick and he’ll surely be yours!

This was the legitimate premise of one of the Tangee Company’s advertisements for their color adjusting lipsticks. Modern readers of the 1930s spread would be appalled by the sexist expectations placed upon women, making cosmetics and beauty almost synonymous with shackles as a binding obligation and definition of self. One would hope that eighty plus years later, our society has moved on from such stringent expectations.

A surprising challenge to the notion that makeup and keeping of appearances is inherently sexist, and used as a restraint, is the emergence of male makeup stars—prompting that maybe makeup isn’t “sexist”, but rather gender inclusive and capable of forging unity and simultaneous social change. From Michelle Phan teaching the basic fundamentals of applying eyeliner, to the complete celebrity transformations of Kandee Johnson, the YouTube makeup tutorial has become an entire industry—with increasing male dominance. Manny MUA has gained recent notoriety after his father came to his defense in reply to a tweet by Matt Walsh, which stated, “Dads, this is why you need to be there to raise your sons.”

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Manny MUA’s father went on to praise his son’s contributions in the makeup and LGBT communities, finding pride in his son’s accomplishments and his own work as a father. “I think the increasing feminization of men is a symptom of a decaying culture,” Matt Walsh fired back, bringing light to the conservative notion that makeup is inherently associated with being feminine.  But Manny is not the first male beauty guru to gain fame. Jeffree Star even launched his own beauty line, picking up great success. The cosmetic line displays the empowering nature of makeup and its ability to be almost “masculine” in a sense that it is attributed to this particular man's worldly success while also being linked to the activism of Manny MUA.

In its earliest history, makeup was originally intended for men. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs adorned themselves with heavy kohl eyeliner and drawn on brows, associating the application of makeup with the most powerful leaders of the culture. Eventually, the use of cosmetics filtered throughout the society to be used by women and people of various social classes. Later Thespian actors would use rouges and powders to enhance their features so that even the furthest reaches of the audiences could still see the facial expressions of the characters.

Yet still, maybe “masculine” isn’t the correct term—and neither is feminine for that matter—but rather, makeup is “empowering.” Without regard to gender, makeup can be a form of artistic expression, a boost in confidence, or even just a fun hobby. Still, all too often this fun practice is mocked, mistaken for deception, or a reason to “take a girl swimming on the first date.” The implication of this is that a bare-faced girl is supposedly less beautiful, covering her real self with her makeup, or that what determines if she gets a second date rests on her appearance and appearance only.

Other YouTube trends are fighting this idea. Some artists take a comedic approach to the notion of swimming on the first date, creating elaborate water-proof makeup looks to emphasize that anyone has the right to wear makeup however they choose. #ThePowerofMakeup is another campaign that has gained notoriety. Makeup artists create videos and display side-by-side images to show the differences between their naked faces and those painted on. This campaign asserts that women do not wear makeup to cover up flaws or deceive, but rather to indulge in the art form. "Nowadays, when you say you love makeup, you either do it because you want to look good for boys, you do it because you're insecure or you do it because you don't love yourself,” Nikkie of NikkieTutorials comments. The makeup guru notes that today the empowering, fun aspects of makeup and technique have been undermined by comments such as the “take a girl swimming on the first date” internet meme—an attempt to assert that it is impossible for someone to use makeup simply because they enjoy it. #ThePowerofMakeup fights back, preaching a true love of makeup and its empowering abilities.

But what can be even more empowering is the ability to choose. Manny MUA and Jeffree Star chose to pursue their passions for makeup, while others might choose to abandon the practice altogether. The era of the Tangee Company’s campaign is long over; femininity isn’t defined by appearances and makeup does not have to be gendered.