Welcome to the Dollhouse: Are Men Who Wear Make-Up Subversive, or Succumbing to the Beauty Myth?
Back when pretty much the only men wearing makeup were either rock lords or Boy George, I privately came up with the guideline that if any particular piece of grooming was something women generally performed while men generally didn’t, I could safely consider it “beauty work.” Nail polish and leg-shaving? Beauty work. Nail-trimming and hair-combing? Grooming. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a useful guide in helping me determine what parts of my morning routine I might want to examine with a particularly feminist—and mascaraed—eye.
That rule has begun to crumble. Americans spent $4.8 billion on men’s grooming products in 2009, doubling the figure from 1997, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Skin care—not including shaving materials—is one of the faster-growing segments of the market, growing 500% over the same period. It’s unclear how much of the market is color products (you know, makeup), but the appearance of little-known but stable men’s cosmetics companies like 4V00, KenMen, The Men Pen, and Menaji suggests that the presence is niche but growing. Since examining the beauty myth and questioning beauty work has been such an essential part of feminism, these numbers raise the question: What is the increase in men’s grooming products saying about how our culture views men?
The flashier subset of these products—color cosmetics—has received some feminist attention. Both Naomi Wolf of The Beauty Myth fame and Feministe’s own Jill Filipovic were quoted in this Style List piece on the high-fashion trend of men exploring feminine appearance, complete with an arresting photo of a bewigged, stilettoed Marc Jacobs on the cover of Industrie. Both Wolf and Filipovic astutely indicate that the shift may signal a loosening of gender roles: “I love it, it is all good,” said Wolf. “It’s all about play…and play is almost always good for gender politics.” Filipovic adds, “I think gender-bending in fashion is great, and I hope it’s more than a flash-in-the-pan trend.”
Yet however much I’d like to sign on with these two writers and thinkers whose work I’ve admired for years, I’m resistant. I’m wary of men’s beauty products being heralded as a means of gender subversion for two major reasons: 1) I don’t think that men’s cosmetics use in the aggregate is actually any sort of statement on or attempt at gender play; rather, it’s a repackaging and reinforcement of conventional masculinity, and 2) warmly welcoming (well, re-welcoming, as we’ll see) men into the arena where they’ll be judged for their appearance efforts is a victory for nobody—except the companies doing the product shill.
Let’s look at the first concern: It’s not like the men mentioned in this article are your run-of-the-mill dudes; they’re specific people with a specific cultural capital. (Which is what I think Wolf and Filipovic were responding to, incidentally, not some larger movement.) Men might be buying more lotion than they did a decade ago, but outside of the occasional attempt at zit-covering through tinted Clearasil, I’ve seen veryfew men wearing color cosmetics who were not a part of a subculture with a history of gender play. Outside that realm, the men who are wearing bona fide makeup, for the most part, seem to be the type described in this New York Times article: the dude’s dude who just wants to do something about those undereye circles, not someone who’s eager to swipe a girlfriend’s lipstick case unless it’s haze week on fraternity row.
“Men use cosmetic products in order to cover up or correct imperfections, not to enhance beauty,” said Marek Hewryk, founder of men’s cosmetics line 4V00. Sound familiar, ladies? The idea of correcting yourself instead of enhancing? Male cosmetic behavior seems more like the pursuit of “relief from self-dissatisfaction” that drives makeup use among women rather than a space that encourages a gender-role shakeup. Outside of that handful of men who are publicly experimenting with gender play—which I do think is good for all of us—the uptick in men’s cosmetics doesn’t signify any more of a cultural shift than David Bowie’s lightning bolts did on the cover of Aladdin Sane.