Today’s rant: Women are are not naturally lipsticked

Let’s start with one premise: Most women (hell, most men) do not have naturally red lips. Or perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Or darkly-lined eyes. Or blue-gray shaded eyelids.

There is a very funny scene in the premiere episode of upcoming Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I’m very much looking forward to, btw). Our heroine goes to bed, waits until her recently-wed husband is asleep, and then tiptoes to the bathroom. She puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup, douses her face in cold cream and then goes back to bed. She wakes about half an hour before the alarm, removes the cold cream, brushes out her hair, applies her makeup (lipstick and all), and then goes back to bed and pretends to be asleep until the alarm goes off, and her husband “wakes” his fabulous-looking wife.

For me, it was a wonderful setup of a popular movie trope: That beautiful women always look perfectly cosmeticized. Women in most films — especially before the last decade or so — always have artfully placed hair, red lips and carefully detailed eyes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just gotten out of bed or just finished cooking a five-course dinner. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been dumped in the river or a pool, spent hours trudging through a jungle, carried around by a monster, saved from a fire, pulled onto a horse,  — except for an artfully placed smudge, their makeup is always perfect.

Bing in an early film–eyeliner, lipstick & all.

(And yes, I’m aware that everybody actually wears makeup in movies. But except for silents and early talkies — have you seen how much lipstick Bing Crosby wears in some of his earliest films? — men’s faces are carefully made up so they don’t look like they’re wearing cosmetics. But women always do — at least, to those of us who know what women look like without makeup.)

I have to admit, as somebody who has never been at all good at (or all that interested in) makeup, I harbor a bit of secret resentment about that. When I was young and inexperienced at looking for love, I was told by several young men that they preferred their women to be “natural.” I took them at their word — until I noticed that, for the most part, the women they asked out were the ones who knew how to use cosmetics to enhance their faces without looking made up. Not having that skill, I was never able to come up to their expectations of what natural should look like in a woman. Natural wasn’t what real women looked like without makeup. Natural was what the women on movies and TV looked like.

More recently, though, many women’s faces on screen have become a little more realistic. When they’re supposed to be just out of bed, or just spent two days running from evil would-be world dominators, their lips and eyes often look plainer and more natural; their hair becomes tousled and even, god help us, truly messy. I love that. I’d love more of it.

Which finally has me coming to what inspired this rant. One of the latest Netflix series to attract attention is a Western called Godless, which is about a town that is inhabited mostly by women who were widowed by the violent deaths of their husbands.

I’ve only been able to watch half of the first episode so far. It’s obviously well written and well acted. So far, it seems to be more about the male protagonists than the women, so my expectations were a little disappointed, but okay — it still could be a fine series.

However (and yes, this is petty, but screw it, I deserve to be occasionally petty if I want to) the cosmetics on the woman who plays Alice Fletcher, what looks to be the lead female role, annoyed the hell out of me.

Most of the other women up until then — the ones without too many lines — appeared to be sturdy, attractive-without-being-fashion-models characters. But Alice is different. She lives with her Paiute mother-in-law and her young son on a remote ranch where the nearest neighbor is probably several miles away. She has had a tough life. She knows how to use a gun to protect herself. She cares for a corral full of horses. The family works hard to provide for themselves.

Yes, absolutely, she was born with her lips that color.

And this down-home, hard-working, 19th-century Western woman is walking around her ranch wearing red lipstick and blue-gray eye shadow, perfectly manicured eyebrows and carefully applied eyeliner. In contrast to her mother-in-law (who is older and not a love-interest and therefore doesn’t count), she obviously spends considerable time each morning — perhaps before she feeds the horses and chops the wood and cooks the breakfast — touching up her face in case any interesting strangers show up at the old homestead.

Which, I’m sorry to say, hit one of my “oh, please!” buttons and kept pushing me out of the otherwise interesting plotline. So I’ll just let my totally personal rant ends with this: Can we please, please, please make sure our tough, hard-working heroines look like normally attractive women rather than fashion models? Can we try to remember that it takes time and effort to look preternaturally gorgeous rather than try to make us believe that some women have naturally bright red lips and blue-gray eyelids?

Thank you.

Camera-shy and on camera

I’ve always been camera-shy. It was impressed upon me years ago, when I was a teenager, that I didn’t have the type of features that were considered attractive — or, at the very least, that if I did, they didn’t show up in photos.

Now that I look at some of the photos of me in my 20s, it occurs to me that things really weren’t as bad as I thought at the time. But it was what I did think at the time, and that is what has kept me a writer who only presented herself for photos or videos with some trepidation.

Caught off-guard at age 21 wearing my college graduation head-gear.

A few days ago, I actually was able to overcome that shyness somewhat to do a “journalist covers new technology video” for IDG, the company I currently work for. It was quite an experience — both for me and for the poor people who worked with me: the director, a young woman with infinite patience, and the photographer, a young man with equal patience (although he didn’t say much, and I have no idea what he was thinking).

They wanted me to talk to the camera, explain why I thought the product was important. I thought that, at worst, I’d be interviewing the vendor, and wouldn’t have to utter more than a sentence or two at a time. (“And what usership is the focus of your product? Do you think you can compete against, say, Google? )

Instead, I was asked to give my “expert opinion” on why this was an important product, a task that I failed at utterly. I am used to being able to play with a product and then write it up, going back to check an impression or do a bit of research. Asked to describe or pontificate on a product, and I get completely tongue-tied; my entire store of vocabulary dries up.

I was constantly apologizing; for stumbling over words, for saying things like “today” and “currently” (we weren’t supposed to date the video); for forgetting what the product was supposed to be about (and for becoming so flustered I forgot the name of the product itself). “Smile!” the director would constantly remind me. “Be more lively!” Finally, I said, “I’m from Brooklyn — we don’t smile there!” (Obviously not true, but it was all I could think of saying at the time.)

So here’s the result: More of a complement to the talents of the director, the photographer and the editor than to me. I still don’t like the way I look on camera — and I think the way I pronounced my “s” sounds a bit off.

But still, I think it’s rather neat, and thought I’d show it off.

My moment of media glory.
My moment of media glory.

Thoughts on a series: Faith (or The Great Doctor)

Faith2012-posterI’ve never been one for soap operas or outright romances – science fiction or mysteries with a touch of romance as icing have always been my preferred escape mechanisms. However, I found myself fascinated by a Korean drama series recently that makes no logical sense, has plot holes you could drive a snow plow through and doesn’t have many surprises — but which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Spoilers (if they matter) follow.

The 2012 television series is called Faith or The Great Doctor (according to Wikipedia, the title in Korean can mean either). It is about a rather flippant plastic surgeon named Yoo Eun-soo (she became a plastic surgeon because she wasn’t earning enough as a surgeon) who is kidnapped by a warrior from 900 years in the past; he is named Choi Young and looks like a rather serious-faced pop star. He is there because the new queen of Goryeo (later to become Korea) has just been seriously wounded, and Choi Young is told that if he passes through a magical portal, he can bring back a doctor from the heavens to save the queen’s life.

After a good deal of resistance, Eun-soo is finally told that if she saves the queen’s life, she’ll be escorted back through the gate. Unfortunately, the king, a rather insecure young man named Gongmin, decides that having a doctor from heaven is too handy to let go, and orders Young to hold on to her until the gate closes. So she’s stuck. And through 24 one-hour episodes, Eun-soo and Young go through a variety of trials and tribulations while slowly falling in love.

The series can’t seem to decide whether it’s science fiction or fantasy. On the one hand, Eun-soo spends a good deal of time regretting the lack of any kind of modern equipment and researching equivalents, and the “gate to the heavens” can be explained away as some sort of science fictiony time portal.

But then there are the bad guys: the leader, a rich and powerful lord who can kill through some sort of magical touch; his brother, who has long white hair, abnormally acute hearing and the ability to kill by playing his flute (on purpose; he’s really not that bad a musician); and a sexy sister who can burn with her hands or create small fireballs. Everybody else seems to take their abilities as just a part of life, even though nobody else seems to be able to match them.

In the end, you just have to sort of shrug and let it go.

And there are the historical aspects: King Gongmin, Queen Noguk and General Choi Young were real people, and the storyline is careful not to violate the historical record. Which means we know what’s going to happen to them — as does Eun-soo, who spends most of the series trying to avoid changing history (and then, near the end, decides she doesn’t care any more).

All that being said, I found it a delicious fish-out-of-water saga. Eun-soo is a bit irritating in the beginning — compared to the people of Goryeo, who are dealing with life-and-death issues, she seems selfish and a bit silly. However, as the story goes on, and as she begins to understand more of what’s at stake, she becomes more of a player and less of a pawn. (And her breezy nonchalance about the privileges of rank in an extremely class-conscious society is a very funny.)

Choi Young, in the meantime, starts as a humorless warrior who hates his job and and doesn’t care much about his new king, and wants to run away to anonymity as soon as he can. We know (at least, those who’ve studied the history of Korea know) that’s not going to happen, but it’s fun to watch his frustration and slow self-discovery as he deals with Eun-soo’s 21st-century attitudes.

In the end, Faith/The Great Doctor (which is available on Netflix) was addicting, often touching, and simply a huge amount of fun to watch.

One note: The English captions are not the best translations I’ve ever seen, sometimes resulting in rather funny combinations of formal and informal  (as in “Those punks are the ones who attacked the Queen!”). But once you get used to it, the meanings seem clear.

The feel of a film: Middle of the Night

I’ve watched a part of a 1959 movie called Middle of the Night that we recorded from TCM, and it’s fascinating to me. It starred Fredric March and Kim Novak, was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Like the film Marty (also from Chayefsky and Mann), it’s about middle class New Yorkers and so has the speech patterns, the surroundings and the feel of the time.

In the movie, March plays Jerry, a 56-year-old women’s clothing manufacturer in the garment industry who falls in love with his 24-year-old receptionist Betty (played by Novak). Unlike many other movies of the time, where it’s taken for granted that the beautiful young female star will end up with the much older male star (see Bell, Book and Candle), the age difference is front and center here. March is a lonely widower starting to face his own mortality; Novak is a troubled young woman recently out of a bad marriage. They meet, fall in love, and have to deal with their own misgivings and those of their families.

There are problems with the film. Chayevsky tries to show the strengths and foibles of all his characters, but all the women in the film — Betty, her mother, Jerry’s sister and his daughter — are troubled and shrill, while Jerry and, in a lesser way, his son-in-law (played by a young Martin Balsam) show quiet strength. (Of course, I haven’t seen the entire film, so I could be pre-judging.) It’s understandable — the point of voice of the film is obviously with Jerry. For example, while we sit in on his conversations with his cronies, we only see Betty with her friends from afar, from his point of view.

Nevertheless, the feel of the film fascinates me. I was still very young at the time — my young brother was born the year this film came out — but my father was a salesman in the exact same industry that Jerry is in. I have vague memories of spending the occasional day at work with my father when I was very young: Of running through aisles made up of racks of clothing, playing hide and seek with myself; of watching the tailors cutting out the patterns and giving me scraps of cloth (and warning me not to touch the scissors); of playing with the adding machine in the receptionist’s cubicle. The place smelled of age and dust and glue.

That — and the scenes of Manhattan of the late 1950s, and the speech patterns of the actors, and the style of the furniture in the apartments — all speak to me in a very fundamental way of my very early childhood in a way that the more polished films of the time never could.

Thoughts on the film Byzantium

First, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of vampire movies — or, at least, I’m very picky about them. I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but haven’t found all the many other films or novels concerning vampires that really interest me. (No, Terence, I’m not including Bite Marks or Blood Pressure, both of which were a lot of fun.)

However, last weekend I went to see Byzantium, a new movie by Neil Jordan. I went mainly because a friend suggested it, and because I really wasn’t in the mood for yet another superhero crash-and-bang fest. (“Dr. Evil is dead! We’ve won!” “You’ve destroyed a major American city, causing the death of hundreds, afflicting thousands of others with physical and mental hurts that will last them their whole lives, made thousands more homeless or lost them their livelihood!” “Yes, but Dr. Evil is dead and I saved my sexy girlfriend, so good has triumphed!”)

What I did not expect was a new retelling of the myth in which the protagonists are two strong flawed women who approach their vampire needs (and their eternal lives) in different ways; who even have different approaches to their need for secrecy (not only to protect themselves from a society that can’t or won’t understand, but from the “brotherhood” of vampires who long ago decided that girls — especially girls who are openly sexual — aren’t allowed in their clubhouse).

I don’t wish to actually review the film; I’ll leave that to others. I just wanted to say that I am still thinking about it, more than a day later, and that I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a new and feminist take on the mythos.