Painting An Inch Thick

While I’m a big fan of a little eyeliner (read: a lot of eyeliner), I don’t often go for a full face of makeup. Foundation is not a simple affair, as I learnt at one of the makeup counters in House of Fraser. We’re talking moisturisers, primers, concealers, contouring, highlighting, matte finishing powder, and so on. For the uninitiated it can be rather a shock. This year I’ve worn the whole caboodle for one wedding (and technically, that was last year) and for Halloween. Other than that, I can’t usually bring myself to bother going the whole hog. Recently I saw a photo of myself with the whole hog on (in a non-Cameron way I mean) and thought: actually that’s a major improvement; maybe I should do this every day.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

In between considering how much make up I ought to be wearing, I’ve been teaching a course on Shakespeare’s women, which includes both the plays and novels based on the plays or their characters. John Updike’s pseudo-intellectual bodice-ripper (well, I should say a “sleeveless surcoat of gold cloth diapered in a pattern of crosses and florets”-ripper. Updike did like his details) Gertrude and Claudius has been one of my favourites on the course so far. With clever and often amusing interactions with the text of Shakespeare’s play, Updike’s novel creates a prequel for Hamlet, which tells the love story of Hamlet’s mother and his murderous uncle. Updike presents the prince of Denmark and his aversion to his mother’s sex life as prudish and pathological, while Gertrude and Claudius share a grand passion and get it on a lot in the novel. There’s also a strong strain of foot fetishism in there too – oddly! It’s good to see a reworking of Hamlet that doesn’t demonise Gertrude for having a sex life. The sex itself isn’t very sexy, and the novel perpetuates the terrible idea that women are passive objects in the bedroom, but maybe poor Updike wasn’t all that good at sex. He does his best, as far as word play is concerned, to transform the language Hamlet uses to describe his disgust at his mother’s sexuality, into something like a positive representation of sexual abandon. Updike takes Hamlet’s image of his mother “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” and gives us a Gertrude surprised at her overwhelming, atavistic passion for Claudius. She rejoices in the idea that she would do anything: "had he bid her lie down in pigshit she would have squeezed her buttocks together in the clench and rejoiced to be thus befouled". Can we really blame Updike for not managing to make the “nasty sty” sexy? He had a go.

In Updike’s quest to present Gertrude in a more favourable light, to reclaim her supposed frailties and turn them into strengths, there is one thing that Updike doesn’t seem to feel able to reclaim: makeup. In Shakespeare’s play women are criticised as dishonest for wearing makeup. In act III scene 1 Hamlet rages against Ophelia for her supposed dishonesty, but really his condemnation is of all women.
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp; you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't! it hath made me mad.
Here ‘paintings’ refers to makeup. Hamlet presents women as creating a whole new face for themselves, making them literally two-faced, and so figuratively dishonest. Not only does Hamlet describe women as dishonest, he also describes their creation of a new face in opposition to God’s creation. For Hamlet, women wearing makeup is against God! This is rather hyperbolic, as is the presentation of the further evils heralded by women's painting, such as the idea that if Ophelia calls rabbits “bunnywunnies” or something equally sickening, she is creating an alternative and evil order in the world (because of course in the Bible Adam – a man – names the animals (Genesis 2.19)). A woman doing a baby voice and saying things like “look at that cute little doggy!” is irritating but surely not evil? Of course the big question is why women feel they need to act dumb to be accepted by society. Gertrude, who “paint[s] an inch thick” is connected with dishonesty and hypocrisy. So how does Updike tackle this aspect of Hamlet’s misogyny? Can a Gertrude who is a little too generous with the slap be redeemed? Instead of making Gertrude a loveable woman who wears a shed-load of makeup, John Updike is careful to emphasise to his readers that, even as she ages, Gertrude’s beauty is natural and wholesome. He labours the point, with a description of her dressing table, which features the odd toothpick and a scrap of cosmetic pigmentation which she seldom touches. This all begs the question: if Updike thinks he can recuperate “the nasty sty” then why is makeup such a challenge?

I have a lot of time for the ideas derived from The Beauty Myth suggesting that, through advertising, society creates the idea that there is something wrong with the way women naturally look, so generating a need for the products the beauty industry creates. The unrealistic goals after which women in our society are expected to strive take hours and hundreds of pounds to approximate, and we never really get there. This pernicious hegemony that forces women to chase an unattainable physical perfection in order to feel accepted, or in some cases, to feel valued, is deeply troubling. Some feminists buy into the idea that the time women spend chasing the beauty myth is one of the things holding us back from taking an equal role in society. On the other hand, in many cultures in history, men and women have worn makeup to demonstrate their wealth and power. Think of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were fans of “a little eyeliner” too. While I understand the objections many people have to wearing makeup, there are a lot of people who object to it because, in a similar way to Hamlet, they view it as dishonest. A friend of mine argued that she dislikes makeup because “it makes a gendered statement,” as she flipped her beautiful curtain of hair over her shoulder. Everyone agreed. Surely, I thought to myself petulantly, her lovely, long hair was an equally gendered statement? What, I considered, made the cherished and well-conditioned mane any more acceptable to the gathered discussants than makeup? Why is ornamenting one’s face with powders less acceptable than adorning it with a beard, for example? What sets makeup apart is that is considered to be artifice (and therefore dishonest). The time taken to care for hair or moisturise skin does not fall under this category. However carefully pruned the facial hair, it is a symbol of authenticity. I think the problem a lot of people have with makeup is that they are culturally conditioned to see it as a lie. They connect makeup with dishonesty, not with power and status as the Pharaohs did. Why then, in our culture, do we connect makeup with dishonesty? I have a sneaky feeling it’s because we connect makeup with women.

So here I am, brush in hand, not quite willing to throw away all my lotions and potions. Is my refusal to lay aside my trusty eyeliner because I’ve internalised the beauty myth hook, line, and sinker? Or, can I claim to be applying my war paint with a flourish, safe in the knowledge that I’m defying an arbitrary cultural identification between makeup, dishonesty, and typically female villainy? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. Maybe it’s a bit of both. I’ll do you a deal: I won’t spend several hours a day applying the full-face wonder – because  I think that really would hold me back from getting into work on time – I’ll just stick to the heavy eyeliner, and every time I apply it, I’ll shout: FOR GERTRUDE! Promise.
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals


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